About this Recording
8.557041 - BUXTEHUDE: Sacred Cantatas
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Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707)
Sacred Cantatas

At the time of his death on 9th May 1707 Dieterich Buxtehude was said to be about seventy years old. We can, therefore, estimate his birth date as 1637. His father, Johannes, was an organist and held positions at St Mary’s Church in Helsingborg, and later in St Olai in nearby Helsingør. It is likely that Dieterich was born in the Danish town of Helsingborg, now part of Sweden. Although we have little information about his training, it is probable that he studied the organ with his father, and it is mainly as a composer of organ works that he is remembered today. His skills as a performer, however, were widely known, a fact exemplified by the young Johann Sebastian Bach, who in 1707 walked 260 miles to hear Buxtehude play “in order to comprehend one thing and another about his art”.

Dietrich Buxtehude was still a young man when, in 1657 or 1658, he took on his father’s former position as organist at St Mary’s Church in Helsingborg. In October 1660, again like his father, he moved to Helsingør to become organist at St Mary’s Church there. In this later post his responsibilities included writing instrumental and vocal music. This would have given him the training to consider the position of organist and Werkmeister at St Mary’s in Lübeck, a position that had become vacant on the death of the organist Franz Tunder, who, as well as being Buxtehude’s father-in-law, may also have been one of his teachers. Buxtehude applied for the place and was successful.

Buxtehude’s new position in Lübeck was prestigious and highly paid. The position of Werkmeister was administrative and also included responsibility as treasurer of the church. For the next 35 years he made St Mary’s the centre of his musical life. He clearly relished the opportunity to continue the performing traditions established by Franz Tunder. As well as playing during the services, he gave concerts on the large organ, and regularly performed with a violinist and lutenist. (Buxtehude’s only major publication in his lifetime were two collections of violin sonatas.) He also inaugurated a series of concerts called Abendmusiken, which gave him the opportunity to present concerts of his larger scale vocal and instrumental compositions.

In 1703 Buxtehude began to look for a successor. He was 66 and had three unmarried daughters, and following current practice he wanted to make as a condition of acceptance of the position that the successful candidate would also marry his eldest daughter Anna Margreta, then aged 28. Two eminent and famous composers, Johann Mattheson and Georg Frederich Handel, who were both in the employ of the Opera in Hamburg, travelled together to be interviewed for the position. Apparently they listened to Buxtehude “with dignified attention”. Their swift return to Hamburg the next day is witness to the fact that they were not impressed with the marriage conditions involved in the appointment.

The greatest portion of Buxtehude’s music is larger scale sacred cantatas written for St Mary’s, Lübeck. There are over 120 vocal works in a wide variety of scorings, genres and styles. These range from works for one voice and continuo, to works for nine voices and fifteen instruments and continuo, divided into six choirs. There is also a significant amount of secular music, more than twenty instrumental sonatas, numerous harpsichord suites and ten wedding arias. Indeed the word ‘aria’ was a common vocal designation used by Buxtehude. This well reflects the style of the lyrical sacred cantata or sacred concerto that flourished in Germany in the seventeenth century, as represented on this recording.

At the start of the seventeenth century Lutheran devotion was still based around the chorales as set by Luther. By the 1660s, when Buxtehude was writing, a new type of subjective devotion was common. Rather than an absolute form of worship, this new devotion was based around the individual’s emotional connection with God. A certain influence was also the popularity of Italian songs, a fashion that was sweeping through Germany at the time. The roots of the cantata were clearly established by German composers in the early part of the seventeenth century. In the works of Praetorius, Schütz, Schein and Scheidt we see how biblical texts were transformed into sacred concertos and strophic poetry into arias or songs. Sacred concertos, for voices and instruments, were described at the time as pieces where the voices and instruments would vie for attention, while instrumental ritornelli contrast with musical motives that are clearly passed around. The chorale, however, is never very far away and is often the centrepiece of the composition.

All the vocal pieces presented on this recording give a good illustration of the form of the sacred cantata. All start with either an instrumental sonata or ritornello. Sung text is interspersed with instrumental interjections, as in the cantata Jesu, meine Freud und Lust, or there are verses with instrumental ritornelli responses, as in Wenn ich, Herr Jesu, habe dich.

In the larger cantatas for all three voices, Was frag ich nach der Welt and Wie schmeckt es so lieblich und wohl, the music is crafted to allow for the maximum of contrast. Instrumental sonatas and ritornelli are juxtaposed with sections where all voices and instruments are heard together and sections where each voice sings a verse on its own, accompanied by continuo.

In contrast to these larger works, the four solo cantatas give a more intimate expression of Buxtehude’s craft. Jubilate Domino is extremely extravert and virtuosic, perhaps one of the best known of Buxtehude’s cantatas. The text is taken from Psalm XCVII. In the outer vocal sections the composer has projected the Psalmist’s command to praise God with the sound of trumpets and of the horn, while the gentler middle section sings of the lyre, perhaps the use of the viola da gamba, symbolizing the ancient cithara mentioned in the psalm.

Wenn ich, Herr Jesu, habe dich, is written in a different style. The text, by Anna Sophia, Countess of Hesse-Darmstadt, consists of rhymed verses or strophes. Each verse, interestingly marked ‘aria’, is introduced by an instrumental ritornello and expresses the Christian belief of salvation from suffering through faith in Jesus Christ. The mood, set by the sombre key of E minor, also reflects the humanity of the conflict with suffering and evil.

The text for Jesu, meine Freud und Lust comes from a collection of ‘Sacred Shepherd Songs’ (Heilige Seelen-Lust, oder Geistliche Hirten-Lieder, 1657) by the poet Johann Angelus Silesius (1624-1677). The text and the music are sensuously reflected in the bright key of A major and the five-part string-writing.

Sicut Moses is based on the Gospel for Trinity Sunday. It has an unusual amount of expansive instrumental writing typical of Buxtehude’s sonatas for two violins and gamba. It is a particularly joyful work as can be heard in the final Amen section.

By way of contrast we have included in the recording a work for singers and continuo only, In te, Domine, speravi and an arrangement for strings of Buxtehude’s well known Passacaglia, BuxWV 161.

Kevin Mallon


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