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Buxtehude, Dieterich (Also Spelled "Dietrich"; c. 1637–1707)

BUXTEHUDE, DIETERICH (also spelled "Dietrich"; c. 16371707)

BUXTEHUDE, DIETERICH (also spelled "Dietrich"; c. 16371707), considered one of the most important seventeenth-century German composers and organists between the time of Heinrich Schütz (15851672) and Johann Sebastian Bach (16851750). Buxtehude was also the most highly respected church musician of his generation, and he contributed significantly to the development of middle baroque organ music. The exact place of Buxtehude's birth is unknown; he was probably born in Denmark, either in Helsingör (Elsinore) or Helsingborg (now part of Sweden), or else in Oldesloe, Germany.

At Skt. Olai Kirke in Helsingör, where his father worked (c. 16411671), Buxtehude studied organ and gained firsthand knowledge of organ building, and he probably also received formal musical training at the Latin school in Helsingör. By the age of twenty-five he was considered an expert in organ design and structure. It is possible that he continued his education in Copenhagen in the late 1650s. In late 1657 or early 1658 he accepted the position of organist at Skt. Maria Kirke in Helsingborg, where his father had previously worked, and remained there until 1660. From 1660 until 1668 he was employed at Sct. Mariae Kirke in Helsingör, after which he was appointed as organist, Werkmeister (church secretary and treasurer), and parish administrator at the Marienkirche in Lübeck, the most prestigious church-organ position in northern Germany and a post he held until his death. Shortly after moving to Lübeck, he married Anna Margarethe Tunder, the youngest daughter of his predecessor, Franz Tunder. They had seven children, four of whom survived until adulthood.

The city of Lübeck was not as adversely affected by the Thirty Years' War as was the rest of central Europe. It did, however, suffer financially, and the city fathers worked to rebuild the local economy. In spite of this hardship, Lübeck maintained an excellent and well-paid band of musicians in its employ. The city also had a reputation as an important center of string playing, especially viola da gamba (bass viol). Buxtehude wrote two sets of sonatas for violin, viola da gamba, and harpsichord continuo (Op. 1, c. 1694, and Op. 2, 1696). These virtuosic and melodic compositionsthe only instrumental works published during his lifetimereflect the high level of instrumental performance in Lübeck.

Apart from his duties of providing music for church services, Buxtehude oversaw an annual concert series, the Abendmusiken, which was held on five Sundays in Trinity and Advent. As the director of the series, he raised money, wrote music, hired musicians, and conducted performances. Under Buxtehude, the Abendmusik concerts usually featured oratorios (dramatic sacred operas) that he had written based on biblical texts and lyrical poetry and, occasionally, programs of various choral and solo vocal music, as well as instrumental music. The musical forces that performed at Abendmusik concerts were substantial. Buxtehude demonstrated his business acumen in his administration of this series: he kept the concerts free to the public by soliciting funds from local businesses. The series continued until 1810 in Lübeck and served as a model that was imitated throughout Europe.

Buxtehude's reputation as an organist and improviser extended outside of Lübeck. George Frideric Handel (16851759) visited him in Lübeck in 1703, and in 1705 J. S. Bach walked from Arnstadt to Lübeck, more than 200 miles, to hear him perform. It is also possible that Bach made the trip to inquire about obtaining Buxtehude's position at the Marienkirche, after learning about the organist's impending retirement. But to be awarded the contractual title of Werkmeister, a prospective applicant was required to marry the master's eldest daughter, a tradition that Buxtehude had followed thirty-seven years earlier but that did not appeal to Bach. When Buxtehude died in 1707, he was succeeded by Johann Christian Schieferdecker (16791732). Buxtehude was buried at the Marienkirche, next to his father and four daughters who had predeceased him.

Buxtehude's compositions encapsulate the seventeenth-century German baroque aesthetic. His instrumental worksespecially the preludes for organ, with their dramatic rhapsodic passages, changing textures, and improvisational-sounding embellishmentsmake full use of the appropriately named stylus phantasticus, a freely improvisatory style favored by north German organists during that period, which Buxtehude often juxtaposed with short, contrasting sections of imitative counterpoint. His other keyboard works include canzonas, chorale settings, suites, and variation sets.

Although Buxtehude's position in Lübeck did not require him to write vocal music, he composed more works for voice than for keyboard or chamber ensemble. The two principal vocal genres he favored were the sacred concerto and the aria, both of which had been developed earlier in Germany by Michael Praetorius (15711621), Schütz, and others. Buxtehude's vocal concertos are set primarily to biblical texts in German and Latin, and the majority of the arias within these works have strophic texts. Many concertos begin with an instrumental movement and conclude with a highly structured "Alleluia" or "Amen." His other vocal works include chorale settings and cantatas, most of which are four-voice settings based on a preexisting Lutheran hymn tune.

With the renewed interest in early music in recent decades, as well as the attention given to his compositions by J. S. Bach, Handel, and other composers, Buxtehude has been assured a permanent place in the organ and vocal repertory.

See also Bach Family ; Baroque ; Handel, George Frideric ; Hymns ; Music ; Schütz, Heinrich.


Snyder, Kerala J. "Buxtehude, Dieterich." In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Edited by Stanley Sadie. 2nd ed. London, 2001.

. Dieterich Buxtehude: Organist in Lübeck. New York, 1987.

Webber, Geoffrey. North German Church Music in the Age of Buxtehude. Oxford and New York, 1996.

Gregory Maldonado

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