Dieterich Buxtehude

From New World Encyclopedia

The only surviving portrait of Buxtehude, from a 1674 painting by Johannes Voorhout.

Dieterich Buxtehude (Dietrich, Diderich) (c. 1637 – May 9, 1707) was a German-Danish organist and a highly regarded composer of the Baroque period. His organ works comprise a central part of the standard organ repertoire and are frequently performed at recitals and church services. He wrote in a wide variety of vocal and instrumental idioms, and his style strongly influenced many composers, including Johann Sebastian Bach. Buxtehude, along with Heinrich Schütz, is considered today to be the most important German composer of the mid-Baroque.[1]


Early years in Denmark

He is thought to have been born with the name Diderich Buxtehude. Scholars dispute both the year and country of his birth, although most now accept it taking place in 1637, in Helsingborg, Skåne, at the time part of Denmark. His obituary stated that "he recognized Denmark as his native country, whence he came to our region; he lived about 70 years."[2] Others, however, claim that he was born at Bad Oldesloe in the Duchy of Holstein, (now Germany), which at that time was a part of the Danish Monarchy. Later in his life, he Germanized his name and began signing documents as Dieterich Buxtehude.

Lübeck: Marienkirche

He was an organist, first in Helsingborg (1657-1658), then at Elsinore (Helsingør) (1660-1668), and then from 1668 at the Marienkirche in Lübeck. His post in the free Imperial city of Lübeck afforded him considerable latitude in his musical career and his autonomy was a model for the careers of later Baroque masters such as George Frideric Handel, Johann Mattheson, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Johann Sebastian Bach. In 1673, he organized a series of evening musical performances known as "Abendmusik," which attracted musicians from diverse parts and remained a feature of the church until 1810. In 1703, Handel and Mattheson both traveled to meet Buxtehude. Buxtehude was old, and ready to retire, by the time he met them. He offered his position in Lübeck to Handel and Mattheson but stipulated that the organist who ascended to it must marry his eldest daughter, Anna Margareta. Both Handel and Mattheson turned the offer down and left the day after their arrival. In 1705, Bach traveled 220 miles on foot from Arnstadt staying nearly three months to hear the Abendmusik, meet the preeminent Lübeck organist, hear him play, and as Bach explained, "to comprehend one thing and another about his art."[3]


General introduction

The bulk of Buxtehude's oeuvre consists of vocal music, which covers a wide variety of styles, and organ works, which concentrate mostly on chorale settings and large-scale sectional forms. Chamber music constitutes a minor part of the surviving output, although the only works Buxtehude published during his lifetime were fourteen chamber sonatas. Unfortunately, many of Buxtehude's compositions have been lost. The librettos for his oratorios, for example, survive, but none of their scores do, which is particularly unfortunate, because his German oratorios seem to be the model for later works by Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann.

Gustaf Düben's collection and the so-called Lubeck tablature A373 are the two most important sources for Buxtehude's vocal music. The former includes several autographs, both in German organ tablature and in score. Both collections were probably created during Buxtehude's lifetime and with his permission. Copies made by miscellaneous composers are the only extant sources for the organ works: chorale settings are mostly transmitted in copies by Johann Gottfried Walther, while Gottfried Lindemann's and others' copies concentrate on free works. Johann Christoph Bach's manuscript is particularly important, as it includes the three known ostinato works and the famous Prelude and Chaconne in C major. Although Buxtehude himself most probably wrote in organ tablature, the majority of the copies are in standard staff notation.

Keyboard works

Preludes and toccatas

The 19 organ praeludia (or preludes) form the core of Buxtehude's work and are ultimately considered his most important contributions to music literature of the seventeenth century. They are sectional compositions that alternate between free improvisatory sections and strict contrapuntal parts, usually either fugues or pieces written in fugal manner; all make heavy use of pedal and are idiomatic to the organ. These preludes, together with pieces by Nikolaus Bruhns, represent the highest point in the evolution of the north German organ schools, and the so-called stylus phantasticus. They were undoubtedly among the strongest influences of J.S. Bach, whose organ preludes, toccatas, and fugues frequently employ similar techniques.

The preludes are quite varied in style and structure, and therefore hard to categorize. Structure-wise, there usually is an introductory section, a fugue, and a postlude, but this basic scheme is very frequently expanded: Both BuxWV 137 and BuxWV 148 include a full-fledged chaconne along with fugal and toccata-like writing in other sections, BuxWV 141 includes two fugues, sections of imitative counterpoint and parts with chordal writing. A few pieces are smaller in scope; for example, BuxWV 144, which consists only of a brief improvisatory prelude followed by a longer fugue. The sections may be explicitly separated in the score or flow one into another, one ending and another beginning in the same bar. The texture is almost always at least three-voice, with many instances of four-voice polyphony and occasional sections in five voices (BuxWV 150 being one of the notable example, with five-voice structure in which two of the voices are taken by the pedal).

The introductory section is always improvisatory. The preludes begin almost invariably with a single motif in one of the voices which is then treated imitatively for a bar or two. After this the introduction will most commonly elaborate on this motif or a part of it, or on a short melodic germ which is passed from voice to voice in three- or four-voice polyphonic writing, as seen in Example 1:

Example 1: This is the introduction from Prelude in F major, BuxWV 145. The motivic interaction seen here, in which a short motif is passing from one voice to another, sometimes sounding in two voices simultaneously, was frequently employed by Buxtehude in his preludes, frequently expanded to four voices with heavy use of pedal.

Occasionally, the introduction will engage in parallel 3rds, 6ths, etc. For example, BuxWV 149 begins with a single voice, proceeds to parallel counterpoint for nine bars and then segues into the kind of texture described above. The improvisatory interludes, free sections, and postludes may all employ a vast array of techniques, from miscellaneous kinds of imitative writing (the technique discussed above, or "fugues" that dissolve into homophonic writing, etc.) to various forms of non-motivic interaction between voices (arpeggios, chordal style, figuration over pedal point, etc.). Tempo marks are frequently present: Adagio sections written out in chords of whole- and half-notes, Vivace and Allegro imitative sections, and others.

Example 2: Fugue subjects from BuxWV 137, BuxWV 140, BuxWV 142 (two) and BuxWV 153.

The number of fugues in a prelude varies from one to three, not counting the pseudo-fugal free sections. The fugues normally employ four voices with extensive use of pedal. Most subjects are of medium length (such as in Example 2), frequently with some degree of repercussion (note repeating, particularly in BuxWV 148 and BuxWV 153), wide leaps or simplistic runs of 16th notes. One of the notable exceptions is a fugue in BuxWV 145, which features a six-bar subject. The answers are usually tonal, on scale degrees 1 and 5, and there is little real modulation. Stretto and parallel entries may be employed, with particular emphasis on the latter. Short and simple counter-subjects appear, and may change their form slightly during the course of the fugue. Structure-wise, Buxtehude's fugues are series of expositions, with non-thematic material appearing quite rarely, if ever. There is some variation, however, in the way they are constructed: in the first and last fugues of BuxWV 136 the second voice does not state the subject as in enters during the initial exposition; in BuxWV 153 the second exposition uses the subject in its inverted form, etc. Fugue subjects of a particular prelude may be related as in Froberger's and Frescobaldi's ricercars and canzonas (BuxWV 150, 152, etc.):

Example 3.

The fugal procedure dissolves at the end of the fugue when it is followed by a free section, as seen in Example 4:

Example 4: The dissolution of the fugue before a free section. The final entry of the subject (in the pedal) is joined by highest voice engaging in a scale run.

Buxtehude's other pieces that employ free writing or sectional structure include works titled toccata, praeambulum, etc. All are similar to the praeludia in terms of construction and techniques used, except that some of these works do not employ pedal passages or do so in a very basic way (pedal point which lasts during much of the piece, etc.). A well-known piece is BuxWV 146, in the rare key of F-sharp minor; it is believed that this prelude was written by Buxtehude especially for himself and his organ, and that he had an own way of tuning the instrument to allow for the tonality rarely used because of meantone temperament.

Chorale settings

Almost all Buxtehude's chorale settings fall into three distinct types: Chorale preludes, chorale fantasias, and chorale variations. The chorale preludes are usually four-part cantus firmus settings of one stanza of the chorale; the melody is presented in an elaborately ornamented version in the upper voice, the three lower parts engage in some form of counterpoint (not necessarily imitative). Most of Buxtehude's chorale settings are in this form. Here is an example from the chorale, A Mighty Fortress is Our God (Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott), BuxWV 184:

Opening bars of Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott BuxWV 184. The ornamented chorale in the upper voice is highlighted, original melody for the two lines present here is shown on separate staves. Note the basic imitative lines in bars 6-8 and 13-15.

The ornamented cantus firmus in these pieces represents a significant difference between the north German and the south German schools; Pachelbel and his pupils would almost always leave the chorale melody unornamented.

The chorale fantasias (a modern term) are large-scale virtuosic sectional compositions that cover a whole strophe of the text and are somewhat similar to chorale concertos in their treatment of the text: each verse is developed separately, allowing for technically and emotionally contrasting sections within one composition. The presence of contrasting textures makes these pieces reminiscent of Buxtehude's praeludia. Each section is closely related to the text of the corresponding lines (chromatic sections to express sadness, gigue fugues to express joy, etc.). Examples include Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ BuxWV 188, Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g'mein BuxWV 210, Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren BuxWV 213, and Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern BuxWV 223. Buxtehude's chorale variations are usually in three or two voices. They consist of around 3-4 variations of which only one may use the pedal. These pieces are not as important for the development of the form and not as advanced as as Pachelbel's or Böhm's contributions to the genre.

The pieces that do not fall into any of the three types are Auf meinen lieben Gott BuxWV 179, which is, quite unusually for the time, a dance suite based on the chorale, and the ones based on the chant (Magnificats BuxWV 203-5 and Te Deum laudamus BuxWV 218), which are structurally similar to chorale fantasias.

Ostinato works

The three ostinato bass works Buxtehude composed—two chaconnes and a passacaglia—;not only represent, along with Pachelbel's six organ chaconnes, a shift from the traditional chaconne style, but are also the first truly developed north German contributions to the development of the genre. They are among Buxtehude's best-known works and have influenced numerous composers after him, most notably Bach (whose organ passacaglia is modeled after Buxtehude's) and Brahms. The pieces feature numerous connected sections, with lots of suspensions, changing meters, and even real modulation (in which the ostinato pattern is transposed into another key).

Some of the praeludia also make use of ostinato models. The praeludium in C major, BuxWV 137, begins with a lengthy and expressive pedal solo and concludes not with a postlude of arpeggios and scale runs, but with a fully legitimate (if somewhat short) chaconne built over a fairly complex three-bar ostinato pattern in the pedal:


The praeludium in G minor, BuxWV 148, in which the ostinato pattern is derived from the subject of one of the fugal sections, also ends in a chaconne. In addition, another praeludium in G minor, BuxWV 149, employs a repeating bass pattern in the beginning.

Other keyboard works

The rest of Buxtehude's keyboard music does not employ pedals. Of the organ works, a few keyboard canzonas are the only strictly contrapuntal pieces in Buxtehude's oeuvre and were probably composed with teaching purposes in mind. There are also three pieces labelled fugues: Only the first, BuxWV 174, is a real fugue. BuxWV 175 is more of a canzona (two sections, both fugal and on the same subject), while BuxWV 176 is more like a typical Buxtehude prelude, only beginning with a fugue rather than an improvisatory section, and for manuals only.

There are also 19 harpsichord suites and several variation sets. The suites follow the standard (Allemande-Sarabande-Courante-Gigue) model, sometimes excluding a movement and sometimes adding a second sarabande or a couple of doubles. Like Froberger's, all dances except the gigues employ the French lute style brisé, sarabandes, and courantes frequently being variations on the allemande. The gigues employ basic imitative counterpoint but never go as far as the gigue fugues in the chorale fantasias or the fugal writing seen in organ preludes. It may be that the more developed harpsichord writing by Buxtehude simply did not survive: In his writings, Mattheson mentioned a cycle of seven suites by Buxtehude, depicting the nature of planets, but these pieces are lost.

The several sets of arias with variations are, surprisingly, much more developed than the organ chorale variations. BuxWV 250 La Capricciosa may have inspired Bach's Goldberg Variations BWV 988: Both have 32 variations (including the two arias of the Goldberg Variations); there are a number of similarities in the structure of individual movements; both include variations in forms of various dances; both are in G major; Bach was familiar with Buxtehude's work and admired him, as has been related above.



  • Organ works
    • Rene Saorgin (complete)
    • Peter Hurford
    • Harald Vogel
    • Bine Katrine Bryndorf (in progress)
    • Hans Davidsson (to be released)
    • Christopher Herrick (to be recorded from 2007)
  • Harpsichord music
    • Lars Ulrik Mortensen (BuxWV 243, 168, 238, 162, 250, 165, 223, 233, 176, 226, 249, 166, 179, 225, 247, 242, 174, 245, 171, 235, 170, 215)
    • Ton Koopman (in progress as part of the Buxtehude Opera Omnia series intended as a "Complete Edition")
  • Cantatas
    • 6 Cantatas (BuxWV 78, 62, 76, 31, 41, 15), Orchestra Anima Eterna & The Royal Consort, Collegium Vocale, Jos van Immerseel—1994—Channel Classics, CCS 7895
    • Sacred Cantatas (BuxWV 47, 94, 56, 73, 174, 12, 48, 38, 60), Emma Kirkby et al, The Purcell Quartet — 2003 — Chandos Records Ltd, Chan 0691
    • Sacred Cantatas Vol. 2 (BuxWV 13, 92, 77, 17, 6, 71, 58, 37, 57), Emma Kirkby, Michael Chance, Charles Daniels, Peter Harvey, The Purcell Quartett—2005—Chandos Records Ltd, Chan 0723
    • Sacred Cantatas (BuxWV 104, 59, 97, 161, 107, 53, 64, 108), Matthew White, Katherine Hill, Paul Grindlay, Aradia Ensemble, Kevin Mallon—2004—Naxos 8.557041
    • Geistliche Kantaten (Sacred cantatas), Cantus Colln, Konrad Junghanel, Harmonia Mundi France HMC 901629
    • Membra Jesu Nostri, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, Fretwork (music group), John Eliot Gardiner, Archiv Produktion 447 298-2
    • Membra Jesu Nostri, Netherlands Bach Society, Jos van Veldhoven (cond), vocalists Anne Grimm, Johannette Zomer sopranos, Peter de Groot counter-tenor, Andrew Tortise tenor, Bas Ramselaar bass (the soloists act as the chorus)
    • Membra Jesu Nostri, Ton Koopman, Erato 2292-45295-2


  1. Albert Schweitzer, J.S. Bach.
  2. Nova literaria Maris Balthici, 1707.
  3. Wolff, New Bach Reader.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Archbold, Lawrence. Style and Structure in the Praeludia of Dietrich Buxtehude. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1985. ISBN 0835716465
  • Belotti, Michael. Die freien Orgelwerke Dieterich Buxtehudes. Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 1995. ISBN 3631485344
  • Dietrich Buxtehude und die Europaische Musik Seiner Zeit. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1990. ISBN 3761809948
  • Snyder, Kerala J. Dieterich Buxtehude: Organist in Lübeck. New York: Schirmer Books, 1987. ISBN 0028730801


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