About this Recording
8.557413 - BUXTEHUDE: Capricciosa (La) / Suite in G Minor
English  German 

Dietrich Buxtehude (c.1637-1707)
Harpsichord Works

Dietrich Buxtehude was probably born in 1637 in Oldesloe in the Duchy of Holstein, then Danish territory, now German. A year later the family moved to Helsingborg in Scania, then Danish, now Swedish, when his father Johannes was appointed organist. Thus three countries call Buxtehude their own. Given the fluidity of borders in the region, it is of no great importance, but Buxtehude is said to have considered himself a Dane. Perhaps the Free Imperial City of Lübeck, where he spent the last forty years of his seventy-year lifespan as organist of the Marienkirche, has the best claim. Like Sweelinck before him, who seldom left Amsterdam, Buxtehude stayed close to his instrument all through his years of maturity.

Buxtehude’s large corpus of brilliant organ music has overshadowed his equally impressive vocal and chamber music, some of which was composed for his famous Advent Sunday concerts, the Abendmusiken. His harpsichord works are less numerous, and buried mainly at the back of organ editions, where they are ignored by organists because they have no pedal parts. The standard edition of the keyboard works which are clearly secular, suites and variations, announces itself as ‘Buxtehude - Piano Works’, which is really no help. The pieces contained therein seem at first glance rather conventional. They are deceptively simple, like Scarlatti or Mozart. It is hoped that this recording will contribute to a re-evaluation of Buxtehude as one of the finest German composers for the harpsichord of the seventeenth century, the only one worthy of mention in the same breath with Froberger. He did what Bach did half a century later: he took the forms he saw around him, French suites, Italian toccatas and canzonas, variation techniques from the German Sweelinck-school and later on from Rome, and made them unmistakably his own.

Of the two suites offered here, the Suite in G minor follows the Allemande - Courante - Sarabande - Gigue order of dances that had only very recently become fashionable. The other is a rare hybrid of suite and chorale-partita, wherein the chorale melody Auf meinen lieben Gott is varied through a sequence of dance movements, Allemande - Double (variation)- Sarabande - Courante - Gigue.

The two Praeludia hark back to the luxuriant Roman toccata tradition of the earlier seventeenth century. Quasi-improvisatory passages alternate with brief fugues. That in G minor is one of the grandest examples of this Stylus Phantasticus. There is no fixed form here. The compartmentalised Prelude and Fugue was a product of classicising tendencies in the latter part of the century.

The Toccata in G major already clearly tends in this direction. Buxtehude is responding here, as well, to the new, more mechanical virtuosity of the famous Roman harpsichordist Bernardo Pasquini. There is only one fugue after the initial free section. It is followed seamlessly by a remarkable coda, where a six-note bassline is varied like a chaconne on a roller-coaster.

The Canzonetta in G major represents one of the two forerunners of the Bachian fugue, the Canzona alla francese, the other being the ricercar, of which no example by Buxtehude survives. In the Canzonetta, Buxtehude continues the earlier tradition of sectionalisation by varying the theme - just once, in this case.

The Aria with two variations in A minor, which glows darkly like a candle-lit interior of the seventeenth century, still owes much to the Sweelinck tradition, and must be an earlier work than La Capricciosa. This latter is Buxtehude’s Goldberg Variations, a catalogue of variation techniques on a monumental scale, by far the longest of the handful of sets that have come down to us from his pen. There is even a parody of a bad harpsichordist, with too many ornaments (all on the wrong notes), rhythmically and harmonically erratic, choppy line and heavy hand - a type, alas, all too familiar even today. To avoid misunderstandings, I should make it clear that I am talking about Variation 27.

A comparison with Bach’s masterpiece reveals some striking parallels: large quantities of very similar figuration, identical key and number of movements, and precisely half the number of bars in the same binary form. Most arresting, however, is the fact that, in spite of the source’s claim that it is an aria di inventione newly-composed), Buxtehude’s theme is the Bergamasca, a simple I-IV-V-I harmonic scheme, with a melody known in Germany as Kraut und Rüben, which Bach used in his final variation, the Quodlibet. These are too many similarities to be coincidental. Bach must have known the piece, and paid homage to his greatest mentor in the Goldberg Variations, as he did a few years later in The Art of Fugue.

It is even possible that both sets are the fruit of an encounter between a mature master and a young genius: Bach and Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, Buxtehude and Johann Pachelbel. Pachelbel, who had close links to the Bach family, dedicated his most famous set of published variations (Hexachordum Apollonis) to Buxtehude, and the similarities in their variation styles are so great that it is impossible to say who influenced whom more profoundly. The younger man certainly had more firsthand familiarity with late developments in Italy and Austria, but he seems to have comprehended the true stature of the Lübeck organist, learned from him, and held him in the highest esteem.

There is also an interesting parallel with two earlier sets of variations: Froberger’s Meyerin and Reincken’s set on the same tune. Both are in G major, and Reincken, the emulator/expander in this case, also doubled the number of variations, from nine to eighteen. Thus Froberger, Frescobaldi’s prophet in Germany, seems to stand at the beginning of a concatenation of German variations in G, the key of such popular Italian themes as Ruggiero, Aria di Fiorenza, the Ciacona, and of course, the Bergamasca. Bach knew Reincken, the organist of St Catherine’s in Hamburg, from his school days, and performed on his organ with Reincken present in 1720, two years before his death at the age of 99 - so here we have another wellspring for the Goldberg Variations.

Without Buxtehude, no Bach. Everyone knows the story of how Bach got into trouble with his employers in Arnstadt by massively overstaying the leave of absence granted him for study with Buxtehude, and how he could have succeeded to the organ at the Marienkirche if he had been willing to marry Buxtehude’s spinster daughter. Such anecdotes tend to obscure the salient fact that Bach risked his important first job as an organist in order to imbibe a little longer at the most richly flowing source available to him. Too many organists go back no further in their six hundred years of repertoire than Buxtehude, and see him as a kind of preparatory stage to the ‘real’ music of J.S. Bach, and harpsichordists generally neglect him. This is a great injustice. Dietrich Buxtehude was one of the greatest of a number of giants upon whose shoulders Bach perched. The fully-ripened composer of the Goldberg Variations and The Art of Fugue still looked to him for inspiration.

Glen Wilson


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