Dieterich Buxtehude was the foremost musician in Germany during his active career, and with this concert the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra observes the 300th anniversary of his death and the 370th of his birth. It is not known precisely when or even where he was born, but the best deduction from available evidence is that he was 70 when he died in 1707 (and therefore born in 1637), and that he was born in the city of Helsingør (the location of the castle in which Shakespeare set his play Hamlet). The fact of his preeminence during his lifetime is demonstrated by the fact that more of his music survives—perhaps five or six times as much—as any of his contemporaries, more than any other besides J. S. Bach. (In fact, Bach himself is responsible for the preservation of a very large proportion of Buxtehude’s organ music.)

In one important respect, Buxtehude’s career was a mirror-image of Bach’s. In spite of the fact that he was an organist, Bach spent the final and longest stage of his career as music-director for the churches of Leipzig, composing music for his choirs and conducting them, and doing some organ-playing on the side. Buxtehude, on the other hand, remained an organist for all his life, most especially at the church of St. Mary in Lübeck, where he presided over the great organ for 40 years, from 1668 until his death. In that capacity he played a great deal of organ music (improvised, as was the custom of the time—any music which was written down and survives to us was copied out for the sake of his students, to play and to use as models for their own composing). The direction of the choir, however, was in the hands of another musician; indeed, the choir was so far away from the organ (choir near the altar at the east end of one of the largest church-buildings in Germany, and the organ high in a gallery at the west end) that Buxtehude could have had nothing to do with the choral parts of the liturgy. But there were several galleries at the west end of the church, high and close to the organ, from vocal and instrumental soloists performed during Communion, and it is for these circumstances that Buxtehude wrote the major portion of his cantatas.

All of his music—the organ works like the “præludium” on this program, the chamber music, and the cantatas—are single- movement compositions, but within each single movement there are a variety of tempos, meters, and textures. In this regard, Buxtehude’s music is much like the madrigals of Monteverdi and Marenzio or the toccatas of Frexcobaldi and Froberger. It was not until two generations later, the generation of Bach and Handel and Vivaldi, that these various sections within the single movement became expanded and separated into distinct movements.

©2007, Daniel Pyle