About this Recording
8.553466 - BUXHEIMER ORGELBUCH (DAS), Vol. 1


The 15th century was a period of great richness in the history of organ music, particularly in Germany, and manuscript sources proliferate compared to the previous century. But many are fragmentary or didactic, and only two contain bona fide organ music exclusively. Perhaps the most important, certainly the largest, is a collection containing more than 250 pieces at the Bavarian State Library in Munich. It presents a conspectus of all the categories of keyboard forms known up to that time - liturgical pieces on plainchant themes, transcriptions of songs and motets of Flemish, German and English provenance, preludes and teaching examples - serving, perhaps, as a workbook for active church organists.

Until 1883 the manuscript was preserved at a Carthusian monastery in the small Bavarian town on the Iller that bears its name. Das Buxheimer Orgelbuch reveals the work of at least eight different hands (though the first 124 folios were recorded by a single scribe) written between 1450 and 1470, presumably in Munich. They used a form of 'tablature' notation in which the uppermost line is written on a staff with everything below that in letters; not unlike the guitar symbols published in modern popular music.

The name of Conrad Paumann (c.1410-1473), a musician of international importance at the time, appears only once in the manuscript; but there is an abundance of surrounding evidence indicating that he looms as the principal figure in its creation, if not directly responsible for much of the music contained therein. As he was blind, he could not have written down any of it himself and it is reasonable to assume that his pupils played an active part in the transmission process. The manuscript also includes intabulations and arrangements of well-known polyphonic ensemble pieces by Dunstable, Binchois, Ciconia, Dufaye, Morton and Frye, whose famous names are sometimes given but more often not. Then there are others whose identities are vague, and it is hard to ascertain whether Putenheim, Götz, or Boumgartner, for example, are the composers of works that have been adapted for the keyboard or whether they are, in fact, real composers of music specifically written for keyboard instruments.

Displaying the stylistic culmination of keyboard composition during its first epochal stage of development rather than heralding a new age, the music of Buxheimer Orgelbuch evokes Gothic resonance. The cantus firmus settings, in particular, seem to preserve some quality of Notre Dame organum. Often the music is marked with astounding voice crossings, dissonances, and flamboyant polyphonic lines, showing a gradual progression from two-part counterpoint, with a third note added now and then to complement the harmony. These denser textures suggest the genuine four-part writing of a later period. The important preludes and didactic works, in which the practice of improvisation is implicit, require insight into the compositional and performance conventions of the time. Considerable information is to be gleaned from Johannes Buckner's Fundamentum of about 1525, a work that summarises much of the playing and fingering habits applicable to even the earliest tablatures. In the present recordings, Buckner's precepts have been carefully contemplated, with respect to the interpretation of the singular trill symbol which appears in the text, and other elements of embellishment - flos harmonicus - appropriated to the organ from the idioms of singing, and plucked and bowed string playing. These were not fixed for posterity by the composer and fall within the domain of the interpreting performer. Moreover, the application of musica ficta has been carefully manipulated - 'by reason of necessity' and 'by reason of beauty' - as are the subjective resolutions to the copious corrupt passages in the manuscript itself. One is ever aware of an amalgam of older medieval principles of voice leading with the more uniform, smoother approach to dissonance of the mainstream Franco-Burgundian style which seems to be characteristic of much of the music in the Buxheim collection.

The Buxheimer Orgelbuch emerged at a time when organ design, particularly winding methods, showed indications toward the incipient standardisation of two types of instruments. There were the small, eminently transportable Portativ organs used in processions and ensemble (Positiv if they were too large to be carried), usually possessing a single rank of metal pipes and having a short keyboard range that did not require excessively large pipes. Much larger were the permanently fixed church instruments that extended the unified Blockwerk concept. Now came the variety of mixture and mutation stops, as different ranks of pipes could be used separately - the Tierce, Quint, Fourniture and Cymbale. Reeds are mentioned by Arnaut de Zwolle in his treatise, around 1436, though they were not commonplace in German organs until several decades later. Mechanically, the organ had already attained all the essential attributes it was to have until the technical novelties of the 19th century. Organs equipped with two or three manuals and pedal board were not unknown; indeed, the Buxheim score sometimes summons the use of pedals with which to emphasize the tenor or contratenor line, or the execution of an independent bass part.

The cathedral church of St. Vincent - the Berner Münster - has played a prominent part in the history of organ music ever since the time of the anonymous author of the Berne Codex in the 11th century, and it was in Berne that Johann Kotter, the important early 16th century anthologist of organ transcriptions, worked as a teacher and organist. The most recent organ to occupy the identical niche in the Münster given to instruments during the Gothic era, was built in 1982 by the renowned Swiss firm, O. Metzler & Söhne. The ancient voicing methods and unequal temperament, winding, and tonal scheme, combined with the organ's 'swallow's-nest' placement high above the choir , contribute to an exceptional and genuine aural perspective.

@ 1995 Joseph Payne

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