In 1668, when Buxtehude was about thirty years of age (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. Up to that time the whole of 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 H�lsingborg, 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 �resund that the younger Buxtehude took his first steps as a professional organist, ultimately being appointed in 1660 by the German congregation of St Mary�s in Helsing�r. His early musical horizons, however, were not restricted to the immediate locality in which he lived: 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 St Mary�s, Helsing�r, in both prestige and remuneration. Here he found a musical culture not far behind that of Copenhagen; even courtly music was 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 by virtue of its status as 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 book-keeper (Werkmeister). 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 municipal 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; the violin and gamba virtuosi of L�beck and Hamburg were famed throughout Europe.
Not far from L�beck lay Hamburg, a major musical centre 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 acquaintance, among them contemporary celebrities like Johann Adam Reincken, Johann Theile, Christoph Bernhard, and Matthias Weckmann.
A great deal of the music of Buxtehude that has come down to us, 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 also the result of initiatives 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 big oratorio-like works, word of which spread over the whole of Northern Europe.
When he was quite old Buxtehude published two collections of instrumental chamber music. Apart from a few occasional works, these are the only examples of his art that were 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, as a manifestation of artistic self-esteem and professional pride, to exceed the limits of their ecclesiastical function and publish music as free artists, without any particular occasion or 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�beck 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 mayors 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-tone 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 Gustaf 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 his music lexicon from 1740):
�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 Bemhard; 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�, which is also mentioned by other writers on music such as Athanasius Kircher (1650) and S�bastien de Brossard (1703), was what Brossard 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, and this applies also to his large-scale works for organ, a very personal stamp of unpredictability, virtuosity, and power of expression. Behind the application of these two principles of composition, the free and the regulated or strict, lies a specific musical philosophy, according to which compositional freedom joins hands 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 do not just occupy a far more central position in his output than was formerly assumed; they 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 sonic universe 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.
Buxtehude�s instrumental chamber music alone would have secured him a place among the most original composers in European art music. These sonatas were originally intended to be heard, played, and studied; they were music for the experts and enthusiasts of the day. Three centuries later, this timeless music continues to offer a surprising, disturbing, and moving experience.
The Sonata No. 1 in B flat major offers an outstanding example of the r�le played by the stylized dances of the period in Buxtehude�s sonata output. In spite of the fact that time signatures and rhythms from dances like the French and Italian courante, sarabande, and gigue turn up in many of his sonatas, Buxtehude rarely gives titles to such dance-like sections: his treatment of their structural conventions is just as free and unconstrained as his treatment of the rules of strict counterpoint in fugal sections. The work rotates around an axis of three sections modelled on dance patterns: I. Allegro, 3. Grave, and 5. Poco adagio - Presto. It begins with a brisk section in 3/8 time exhibiting the typical bipartite structure of a dance, rounded off here by a brief reprise of the first section. The harpsichord occasionally departs from its supporting continuo function to participate in the cheerful dialogue between the strings, as it also does in the two fugal sections (2. Adagio - Allegro and 4. Vivace - Lento). The second section is introduced by sombre Adagio measures that lead into a lively fugue, in the second half of which Buxtehude unites motivic elements from the entries and episodes to reach a masterly culmination. The slow third section with its sarabande atmosphere is a free canon between the violin and the gamba. By way of contrast a fugal Vivace follows that nevertheless maintains the minor-key contrast to the major tonality of the outer sections. The concluding Lento measures form a transition to the final section; this begins with ten measures marked Poco adagio, before a Presto in compound 6/4 time rounds off the sonata with a stunning display of the rhythmic potential of this dance pattern.
Sonata No. 2 in D major begins with a fast fugal section in triple metre with soloistic passages for the strings, framed by a slow introduction and conclusion (Adagio - Allegro - Largo). Toward the end Buxtehude creates a typical rhetorical effect by abruptly bringing the passage work to a stop; an unexpected pause precedes the Largo, which modulates to the related minor key and prepares the way for the Arietta that follows. This is a gracefully melodic aria with nine variations. In the third and final section (Largo - Vivace) the first measures of the slow and expressive introduction refer back to the aria melody, after which a short fugal section brings the work to a conclusion.
Sonata No. 3 in G minor contains ostinato sections over a thorough bass, fugato, rhetorical devices, and dance-like sections That are fundamental elements in Buxtehude�s sonatas. Here, in the longest work of Opus 2, all of them occur. The first section (Vivace - Lento) builds on a bass figure of three measures that is repeated ten times and finally broken up into fragments; the climax of the Vivace section is an accelerando, with hectic rhythms in the strings that recur in the following Allegro section and can be sensed also in the concluding Gigue. This device sets a strongly unifying stamp on the sonata as a whole, and a complementary unifying factor is the retention of the key of G minor almost all the way through. After the short fugato of the second section (Allegro - Lento) another ostinato section (Andante) follows, this time in 3/4 dance rhythm with a bass figure of four measures that is repeated twenty-four times, supporting a gracious dialogue between the strings that displays much rhythmic finesse. The sonata ends with the only movement in the collection to bear a dance title, Gigue. It has the traditional bipartite form with repetitions, but the expressive harmonic intensity of its slow introduction (Grave) and the artful canonic interplay between the strings in the gigue proper raise the movement far above the level of a conventional dance with its standardized formulae.
Sonata No. 4 in C minor begins with a Poco adagio, one of the few self-contained slow introductory movements in Buxtehude�s sonatas. The Allegro of the second section is fugal and presents all of its motifs in the first thirteen measures. This limited musical material is exploited in a two-part fugal exposition and an episode followed by three more expositions with two episodes, the strings alternating to present the theme in these expositions; some slow, tonally contrasting Lento measures bring the section to an end. The time signature now changes to 3/4 without indication of tempo or character, and the third section unfolds as a long and deeply expressive instrumental duet between the violin and the gamba, possibly modelled on the vocal music of the time. This duet leads directly into the concluding Vivace, which is a combination of an ostinato section in the first half and a fugato in the second half, rounded off by a repeated cadence -a �short reprise� of the kind found in many of Buxtehude�s sonatas.
Sonata No. 5 in A major is the only sonata in this collection that exhibits so much consistency in the juxtaposition of two contrasting methods of composition, namely strict construction vis-�-vis free improvisatory passages in the �fantastic style�. Nor is there any other sonata in the collection that assigns the ostinato principle such a vital function as a constructional skeleton, or allows the two strings so much freedom of soloistic display. Buxtehude maintains artistic balance between the two compositional methods by developing them from the very beginning and later uniting them in the same section. In this way he achieves a synthesis of the audible and inaudible structures in his music. Stepwise descending groups of four notes are a basic motif in the ostinato constructions of this sonata. The motif is already prefigured in the continuo bass of the first section, Allegro, which is short and dance-like with gigue rhythms. The solo violin�s Concitato is based entirely on the four-note ostinato, a motif that is repeated seventeen times in all. The solo section for the gamba, Adagio, also has the four-note group as a dominating motif in the bass; in the following fugal and canonic Allegro the bass ostinato consists of three sequential four-note groups in descending order, spanning an octave. Later in the section the four-note motif wanders into the upper voices in decorated form, only to return and be subjected to further variation in the continuo bass. The final untitled section, which is in 6/4 time accelerating to Poco presto, likewise has the descending four-note group with cadential elaboration. At the end there is yet another reunion of ostinato and concitato in the furious conclusion by the strings, with repeated sixteenth-note figures and doublestopping over the last three of twelve statements of the bass motif. Free soloistic expression dominates the central part of the sonata and occupies half of its total length of just over two hundred measures. In the Concitato for solo violin and the briefer Adagio for solo gamba the two instruments are allowed to indulge in rhythmic figurations and virtuoso passages, with the solo violin as the principal participant. The stile concitato was launched by Monteverdi in his madrigal book of 1638 as a musical counterpart to agitated human feelings: rapidly repeated notes were a device that he used in madrigals describing war and battle scenes. While Buxtehude does not limit himself to note repetition in this violin Concitato, the rhetorical effects of the �agitated style� are noticeable throughout. The contrasting Adagio for solo gamba almost corresponds to another device in Monteverdi�s madrigals called stile molle (the �gentle style�), intended to express imploring and prayerful states of mind, and here the gamba works out this emotion over its whole register from top to bottom. Buxtehude may have written no madrigals, but he certainly expressed both violent and intimate emotions in his sonatas.
Sonata No. 6 in E major has a slow, extended introduction (Grave), in which the harpsichord part, as also in the following sections, is integrated into a threepart contrapuntal texture. This leads directly over into a fugal Vivace. A canonic exposition is repeated almost unchanged after a short episode, and the section ends suddenly when eleven Adagio measures with motivic reminiscences of the introduction make the transition to an energetic Poco presto. After a three-part fugal beginning the entries are subjected to freely inventive development with reminiscences of an underlying gigue rhythm, unexpectedly giving way to a peaceful Lento section with descending broken triads. A striking violin cadenza leads to a half-close in E major before the final Allegro. Here again we have an ostinato section, with a rapid quaver motif in the bass repeated twelve times below the concerted string parts. The abrupt ending emphasizes how effectively Buxtehude established contrast in this sonata between lyrically restful sections and sections of almost breathtaking energy.
Sonata No. 7 in F major has a slow introduction (Adagio) with a half-close in F major that leads into a rapid first fugal section without title, 4/4. This section evolves in a manner characteristic of Buxtehude: three expositions in three parts, with the harpsichord as an active participant, alternate with two episodes based on the same motivic elements and are rounded off by a free coda, where the composer once again achieves an effective combination of material from the episodes as well as the expositions. This last sonata in the collection uses dances in its two middle sections, the former being an intimate sarabande-like Lento and the latter a lively Vivace in 3/8 time where the strings and keyboard romp about in double counterpoint with syncopated rhythms alla giga. The last section begins with a dialogue, slow and intense, between the two strings (Largo) preceding a final Allegro that yet again illustrates Buxtehude�s skill in utilising the ostinato device. A fast-moving bass motif of three measures is repeated four times below the free contrapuntal passage-work of the strings, and after an interruption in the form of a concertato interlude it is stated another six times, with energetic new figures in the strings.
The seven sonatas of Opus 2 are unique examples of artistic inventiveness and compositional skill. At the end of the book Buxtehude added the modest words �Il tutto ad honor d�Iddio� - �All to the honour of God�.
English translation: Michael Chesnutt
ReviewsComprehensive annotations complement well crafted perform ances by three leading early music exponents, revealing a little-known side to Buxtehude's prolific output. Its own musical charms aside, recordings like this help to enrich our under standing of the context from which JS Bach emerged. The budget price makes this disc doubly appealing. - Limelight, June 2006