In 1668, when Buxtehude was about thirty (neither the date nor the place of his birth are known), he was appointed to the coveted post of organist at St Mary�s Church in the free Hanseatic city of L�beck on the Baltic coast of Germany. Until then his upbringing, education, and musical career had taken place within the boundaries of the kingdom of Denmark. His father had left the little town of Oldesloe in the duchy of Holstein to serve as organist in Helsingborg, and from there he moved at the beginning of the 1640s to Helsing�r. It was in those two cities on opposite sides of the �re Sound that the younger Buxtehude began his career as a professional organist, ultimately being appointed in 1660 by the German congregation of St Mary�s in Helsing�r. His musical horizons, however, were not restricted to the immediate locality. Only forty kilometres south of Helsing�r lay the Danish capital of Copenhagen, with its flourishing musical environment both ecclesiastical and secular, and Buxtehude must have been familiar with developments there. In the 1660s the Danish royal chapel was under the direction of Kaspar F�rster the Younger, and the organists of the six churches in the city attracted pupils from all over Europe, including, for example, Johann Lorentz the Younger, who probably taught Buxtehude, and gave public recitals to large audiences in the church of St Nicholas.
Buxtehude�s new position in L�beck far exceeded that in Helsing�r in both prestige and remuneration. Here he found a musical culture not far behind that of Copenhagen, with even court music within his reach, for not far away lay the palace of the Duke of Gottorp. St Mary�s, L�beck, was the most important church in the city, the official place of worship of the city council, and in the next forty years, until his death in 1707, Buxtehude was to practise a range of musical activities there that went far beyond his obligations as organist and Werkmeister (administrator and treasurer). While the Kantor of the church bore the main responsibility for the musical establishment, and in particular for directing the choir, the organist had to play at services and on important feasts and holidays, but there was also a vigorous tradition of secular music, and the city musicians, the so-called Ratsmusik, forged a close link between ecclesiastical and municipal music. The Ratsmusik in Buxtehude�s time comprised seven highly qualified musicians retained, like the organist himself, directly by the Senate. Their duties included playing in church when instruments were required there, as well as appearing at public and private functions at the command of the Senate and citizenry. The string players had particularly proud traditions going back to the beginning of the century, with violin and gamba virtuosi, as in Hamburg, famed throughout Europe.
The major musical centre of Hamburg lay not far away, with an opera house and a concert society (collegium musicum) as well as its long-standing church music traditions. Here lived a number of prominent composers, organists, choir directors, and others belonging to Buxtehude�s circle of acquaintances, among them contemporary celebrities like Johann Adam Reincken, Johann Theile, Christoph Bernhard, and Matthias Weckmann.
Much of the surviving music of Buxtehude, his cantatas, his big freely composed organ works, and his music for instrumental ensemble, was in fact not written as part of his duties as organist. Much of his church music was probably the result of close and fruitful cooperation with the kantors of St Mary�s, with whom he seems to have shared the task of producing vocal music for the liturgy. Many works were not in any way connected with his church appointment. This applies in particular to the famous Abendmusiken that had been established by his predecessor Franz Tunder. Buxtehude expanded these to five annual church concerts with performances of large-scale oratorio-like works, word of which spread throughout Northern Europe.
Buxtehude published two collections of instrumental chamber music in the mid-1690s. Apart from a few occasional works, these are the only works of his printed during his lifetime. Opus 1, containing seven sonatas for violin and viola da gamba with harpsichord continuo, is undated but probably appeared in 1694. Opus 2, with seven more sonatas for the same combination, followed two years later. Though instrumental composition was not one of Buxtehude�s obligations as an organist, it was by no means uncommon at that time for organists to publish music as free artists, without any particular occasion of performance in mind. A few years earlier Buxtehude�s senior friend and colleague in Hamburg, Johann Adam Reincken, had published a collection of sonatas for two violins, viola da gamba, and continuo under the title Hortus musicus, and instrumental chamber music could be used both in and out of church. It is likely that sonatas were played in St Mary�s on major feast days and during the distribution of Holy Communion. In the secular musical environment of L�beek there would, of course, have been both professional and amateur musicians who were interested in playing sonatas written by the organist to the Senate.
Buxtehude was nearly sixty when he published his sonatas, but he had been practising the genre for many years. One of the few compositions that can be attributed with reasonable certainty to his Helsing�r period is a fragmentarily preserved sonata, and in 1684 it was announced that he would soon be publishing a collection of sonatas for two and three violins, viola da gamba, and continuo �suitable for performance both as Tafelmusik and in church�. This collection probably never came out, but eight unpublished sonatas survive, some of which may very well have been intended for it. Buxtehude dedicated Opus 1 to his employers, the mayor and senators of L�beck, and Opus 2 to his special patron, Johann Ritter. The dedication of the first volume refers to it as the �first part� of his sonatas, and there are other indications that he regarded the two volumes as a unit: they are written for the same instrumental combination, each contains seven works, and they are organized according to key in such a way that between them they encompass all the major and minor keys of a seven-note diatonic scale beginning on F, omitting only F minor and B flat minor. The key sequence of Opus 1 is F major, G major, A minor, B flat major, C major, D minor, E minor, and of Opus 2 B flat major, D major, G minor, C minor, A major, E major, F major
The rediscovery of Buxtehude�s music began more than a century ago with his organ works. He was rightly seen as an important source of inspiration for the young J.S. Bach, not only in the period of a few months that the latter spent studying with him in L�beck. Later came the discovery of more than a hundred cantatas by Buxtehude in the famous collection of Gustav D�ben the Elder, the seventeenth-century Swedish organist and court composer who was one of Buxtehude�s great admirers. Buxtehude�s instrumental chamber music has, however, remained strangely neglected until recently. Apart from unpublished sonatas, the D�ben Collection (now in Uppsala University Library) contains the only intact copies of his two books of sonatas. The personal contact between Buxtehude in L�beck and the D�ben family in Sweden is just one among many lines of communication that existed between musical centres in the Baltic of this period, from Stockholm in the North to the Southern coastal cities, from Reval by way of Riga, K�nigsberg, and Danzig to Stralsund, L�beck, and Hamburg.
In the choice of instruments for his sonatas Buxtehude avoided the use of the violone or cello as a low-range melodic instrument, which was the predominant usage in the Italian baroque sonata, preferring to follow German tradition by using the gentler sounding viola da gamba, a bass instrument that with its range of three octaves can also play in the tenor and alto registers. From the technical point of view his sonatas must have been intended for some of the virtuoso executants of L�beck and Hamburg. Decades later the composer and theorist Johann Mattheson gives us an insight into this performance context:
�In 1666 the world famous Johann Rist came to Hamburg to enjoy the benefits of the city�s musical culture. An excellent concert was arranged for him at the home of Christoph Bernhard; one of the works performed was a sonata for two violins and viola da gamba by Kaspar F�rster the Younger, in which each player was assigned eight measures where he could improvise freely in accordance with the stylus phantasticus.�
This �fantastic style�, also mentioned by other writers on music such as Athanasius Kircher (1650) and S�bastien de Brossard (1703), was what the latter called �a special instrumental style or manner where the composer is not subject to any formal restrictions, as the generic terms �Fantasia�, �Ricercare�, �Toccata�, and �Sonata� imply�. Music in this style, resembling writtendown improvisation, is characteristic of the sonatas of Buxtehude. The juxtaposition of such music with strictly regulated, learned counterpoint gives his instrumental compositions, including his larger organ pieces, a very personal stamp of unpredictability, virtuosity, and expressive power. Behind the application of these two principles of composition lies a specific musical philosophy, according to which compositional freedom combines with technical discipline (in the form of sections written as fugues or canons) to form a musical microcosm that was thought of as a reflection of the macrocosm, where even apparently coincidental and arbitrary phenomena were subject to the control of the Almighty. The number seven in Buxtehude�s sonata collections is not just the number of the keys in the scale; it could also symbolize time (the seven days of the week) and the seven planets then known to astronomers. Buxtehude is supposed to have described the qualities of the planets in seven lost keyboard suites, and indeed they confronted him every day on the great planet clock in St Mary�s, L�beck.
Buxtehude�s sonatas not only occupy a far more central position in his output than was formerly assumed, but also show that over and above his r�le as a church musician he was a wide-ranging and versatile composer preoccupied with the compositional and philosophical problems of his time. His musical output and his ideas about music as an art form and a science make him one of the most important figures in German and Nordic music between Heinrich Sch�tz and Bach. In his sonatas he reveals a fertile imagination capable of expressing lyrically delicate, sorrowful, and dramatic emotions - an imagination given free rein in music that is always melodious, harmonically gratifying, and full of vitality. He creates a world of sound that for variety of expression and constant alternation between the fantastic and contrapuntal styles has no equal in the instrumental music of the seventeenth century.
The first sonata of Opus 1, the Sonata No. 1 in F major is in four broadly conceived sections. The first two, Vivace and Allegro, have harmonically intense concluding passages in contrasting slower tempi, Lento and Adagio, the latter creating a particularly well calculated surprise effect. Both conclusions are characterized by minor-key contrasts and expressive modulations. The third section, Andante, is an independent ostinato movement in dance-like 6/8 rhythm, with a bass figure of four measures that is repeated nine times below the fugally treated upper parts. The fourth and final section opens with a Grave passage featuring a pedal point and a descending bass line below fanfare-like figures in thirds on the strings; the concluding stepwise descending motif forms a transition to the opening motif of the Presto, which is a freely fugal dialogue between the strings of a kind typical of Buxtehude�s sonatas. Other motivic relationships bind the sections of the work together in a cyclic whole.
In Sonata No. 2 in G major Buxtehude juxtaposes three distinct types of movement, a concerto movement (Vivace), a dance movement (Allegro), and a set of variations (Arioso), introduced and connected by slow sections. Thus, three Lento measures preface the Vivace; the latter, which is constructed as four canonic set of entries and four episodes in double counterpoint, is in fact a diminutive concerto movement with tutti-ritornelli and solo episodes rounded off by cadenzas at the end. Nine measures in Adagio lead from G major to E minor and to the gigue-like Allegro in 6/8. The Largo that introduces the final section returns us to the main key, and a gracious Aria with four variations concludes the work,
Sonata No. 3 in A minor is the only sonata in the collection that begins with an independent slow movement, an Adagio in the learned imitative tradition with canon and double counterpoint. In the subsequent fast movement, Allegro, the countersubject and double counterpoint at the beginning give the impression of a double fugue, but this gradually gives way to a concertato dialogue between the two strings. A Lento passage, also written in double counterpoint and concluding with a chromatically downward-moving figure in the gamba, leads to a fugal Vivace with the theme split up into dialogue fragments for the strings. Here too the stepwise descending motion is felt as a unifying element in the sonata, an impression strengthened by the subsequent chromatic bridging passage, Largo, which introduces the fugal Presto that rounds off the work. In this Presto, entries alternate with episodes in a rondo-like structure. The Adagio measures of the coda extend the falling chromatic line to a whole octave imitation between all three voices, thus bringing to an end a sonata that is a tour de force of contrapuntal artifice.
Among the unpublished sonatas of Buxtehude there is another, probably earlier, version of Sonata No. 4 in B flat major, prefixed to a suite in four movements (BuxWV 273) that was omitted in the printed edition. The sonata comprises two large sections, Vivace - Allegro and Lento - Allegro. The former is a set of variations on an ostinato figure of three and a half measures� duration repeated no less than 32 times on the harpsichord, usually accompanied by a recurrent introductory motif in the strings; in the Allegro segment the variations are in triple rhythms, giving the music the feeling of a gigue, and there is an accelerating coda in halved note-values. The second Allegro, introduced by a Lento passage in the contrasting minor key, is a fugue interrupted exactly halfway through, after a stretto treatment of the theme, by a free passage of three times four measures with solistic elaboration in the strings (marked Adagio in the printed version), after which the sonata ends with yet another fugal treatment of the theme by the strings, and a cadential ending with a �short reprise� and double-stopping in the violin.
Sonata No. 5 in C major has two fugal outer sections, Vivace and Adagio - Allegro, framing two sections in dance rhythm, a sarabande (Violino solo - Allegro) with varied repetition (double) and a gigue (Largo - Allegro) with a slow introduction that modulates from major to minor and anticipates the opening motif of the dance. In the concluding Allegro, introduced by a harmonically colourful Adagio passage where the tonality reverts to C major, Buxtehude manipulates the fugal theme in both direct and inverted forms.
In Sonata No. 6 in D minor there are only brief glimpses of the traditional structure, more than any other in the collection emphasizing the �fantastic� style as an important element in Buxtehude�s chamber music. The first section (Grave - Allegro) has a slow introduction followed by a fast fugue; in the middle of the work is a quick dance movement in sarabande rhythm (Vivace) with a half-close on D minor, and in the last section (Poco presto - Poco adagio - Presto - Lento) there are the outlines of a gigue with a slow interlude and a slow coda. Before and after the brief Vivace Buxtehude has inserted passages in the �fantastic� style (the first marked Con discretione) separated and followed by three short Adagio passages. In his Der Vollkommene Capellmeister of 1739 Mattheson explains con discrezione in connection with the stylus phantasticus as referring to rhythmically free passages that can be played fast or slow according to the player�s taste (�con discrezione, um zu bemercken, da� man sich an den Tact gar nicht hinden d�rffe; sondern nach Belieben bald langsam bald geschwinde spielen m�ge�). In this sonata the Con discretione passages consist of figurations and passagework with rhythmic ostinati and echo effects in the strings underpinned by static formulae in the bass.
Sonata no. 7 in E minor begins with a fugal section in moderately fast tempo, ending with six slow measures above a descending bass line (Allegro - Largo). A minuet-like fugal section follows and is rounded off by a homophonic concluding passage that is varied in equal time by a dramatically effective slow coda with a halfclose on E minor (Presto - Vivace - Adagio). The final section, which builds on the rhythmic leitmotif of the sonata, proceeds in ever-accelerating tempo interrupted by a dramatic Lento, the final gigue ending abruptly with a fermata on the last measure (Poco presto - Lento - Prestissimo).
Niels Martin Jensen
English translation: Michael Chesnutt