Composer Dieterich Buxtehude: Organ Music, Works & Cantatas

Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

Dieterich Buxtehude was a Baroque organist and composer. Perhaps best known for his organ works, and the fact that J.S. Bach walked more than 200 miles to hear him play, Buxtehude's music was far more influential than is commonly believed. Read on to find out more about this mysterious composer and organist!

Dietrich Buxtehude: Man of Mystery

What can be said about a man whose exact birthdate and place isn't exactly known, or the idea that musical historians aren't even sure of his name? Scholars believe this musical man of history was born sometime around 1637 in either Danish or German territory; his birth name was Diderich Buxtehude. While academics know little or nothing about his birthplace or early life, they do know his father, a professional organist, taught him how to play the instrument.

In his twenties and early thirties, Buxtehude worked as an organist in Helsingborg and Helsingør before succeeding Baroque church composer and organist, Franz Tunder, at St Mary's Church in Lübeck. To obtain the position, Buxtehude had to marry Tunder's daughter, Anna Margarethe; together, they had seven daughters. He held this position for nearly 40 years.

Dieterich Buxtehude
Dieterich Buxtehude

Life of an Organist

Buxtehude was an accomplished organist, perhaps the greatest of his era. He served as a musical link between the father of German and Protestant Baroque music, Heinrich Schütz, and the father of Western concert music, J.S. Bach. Buxtehude was so good, that a number of leading composers came to hear him play, including J.S. Bach himself, G.F. Handel, Johann Mattheson, and Georg Telemann. In fact, Bach was so anxious to hear Buxtehude play, he actually walked over 200 miles from Arnstadt to Lübeck, arriving some time in 1705. Once in the city, Bach stayed and studied with Buxtehude for a few months.

In addition to his instrumental work, Buxtehude composed 19 organ praeludia, or preludes; approximately 120 cantatas also survive. Cantatas are vocals for sacred music, often accompanied by choirs or orchestras. Along with Nicolaus Bruhns, he also helped to formalize the Protestant Baroque style pioneered by Heinrich Schütz, which he later taught to Bach. Buxtehude died in 1707 at the age of 70, after which a lot of his work was lost, leaving us with no clues about what he was composing or playing during the last 20 years of his life

The Cantatas

Although many of Buxtehude's contemporaries wrote vocal music as part of their official positions, such as cantor, the composer and organist did so because of his interest in the form and as a means of self-expression. Musical and text-based influences included biblical scriptures, church hymns, medieval poetry, and period verse. Unique to Buxtehude's work was the use of long musical pauses or repetitious wording for effect.

Buxtehude's approach to instrumentation foreshadowed Bach's use of the violin. His early cantatas were traditional in that they alternated violin instrumentals with vocals. But as Buxtehude's sound evolved, he began using the violin as a true accompaniment, which led to greater degrees of melodic and harmonic independence.

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