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Dieterich Buxtehude (c. 1637-1707) was most likely born in Helsingborg, Denmark, to German father Hans and (possibly Danish) mother Helle. He grew up in nearby Helsingør, where Hans was parish organist at St. Olai’s, the grand basilica. As a twelve-year-old boy, Buxtehude witnessed a major repair of St. Olai’s organ, a first step toward his own life as a master of the instrument. He also received musical instruction as part of the liberal arts curriculum of Helsingør’s Lutheran Latin school, from principles of music theory, to composition, to singing in choirs for Danish and German-speaking churches. Choirs in such schools typically met for an hour at noon each day, sang in polyphony (sometimes door-to-door on the eves of feast days), and were available to perform at weddings and funerals. The brother of Hans Leo Hassler (composer of “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”) put together an anthology of pieces that young Buxtehude sang, and the same anthology was later purchased by J. S. Bach for use in the Thomas School in Leipzig.

When his studies in Helsingør were complete, Buxtehude found an apprenticeship with an organist either in Copenhagen or Hamburg. In late 1657 or early 1658, he traced the footsteps of his father and took positions as organist first in Helsingborg, then in Helsingør. Both cities were suffering significantly from a war between Denmark and Sweden, and Buxtehude had to make himself content with poor living conditions, a meager salary, and the results of foreign occupation and economic decline. Nevertheless, Buxtehude managed to make himself known as an organ expert by the age of 25, and as a mark of this he was invited to inspect and repair Helsingborg’s organ. A leading music scholar, Marcus Meibom, happened to be attending St. Mary’s at Helsingør while Buxtehude was there, giving Buxtehude opportunity for even further learning.

In 1668, following the death of Franz Tunder, Buxtehude took the position of organist in Lübeck, where he would remain for almost forty years. Lübeck was a thoroughly Lutheran city. According to one disgruntled visitor in the 1670s, in “inconsiderate zeal… their Lutheran Ministers…had persuaded the Magistrates to banish all Roman Catholics, Calvinists, Jews, and all that dissented from them in matter of Religion, even the English Company too.” All four religious superintendents in Lübeck during Buxtehude’s lifetime were staunch orthodox Lutherans who shunned the encroachments of Pietism. The same observer above also noted, “The people here spend much time in their Churches at devotion, which consists chiefly in singing.” Buxtehude’s parish, another St. Mary’s, boasted the center of the city’s skyline.

At age 31, Buxtehude married Franz Tunder’s second daughter, Anna Margaretha, fulfilling the common expectation that a new candidate would care for his predecessor’s kin. In less than a year’s time, the couple had both baptized and buried their first daughter, Helena. Of their six other daughters, two died in early childhood, one in young adulthood, and three survived their father. Much of Buxtehude’s extended family also lived in Lübeck, including his widowed mother-in-law, whom he generously provided for; his brother-in-law Samuel Franck, who worked closely with him as the cantor at St. Mary’s; and eventually his own father Hans, who remained there until his death in 1674. Buxtehude dedicated a piece of funeral music to his father, titled Fried und Freudenreiche Hinfahrt, or “Peaceful and Joyful Departure”—for, he wrote, his father “departed with peace and joy from this anxious and unpeaceful world…and was taken home by his Redeemer (for whom he had long waited with yearning).”

Musical life in Lübeck was vigorous and impressive. The city employed seven elite musicians whom Buxtehude and Franck had at their disposal, along with a guild of other instrumentalists who played at churches and for weddings. Professional musicians were extremely versatile—most had mastered several instruments, and nearly all could play the violin. Together with Buxtehude, they performed dinner music for the aristocracy, sacred music for services at St. Mary’s, and private chamber music in their own homes. This “professional house music” once attracted a visit from the famous Lutheran composer and hymn writer Johann Rist in 1666, who was greatly pleased with the experience.

Perhaps the most illustrious feature of musical life in Lübeck was the Abendmusiken, an five-part series of evening concerts performed annually at St. Mary’s on the last two Sundays of the church year and the first three Sundays of Advent. This endeavor was entirely voluntary labor on the part of Buxtehude—it was not included in his official duties. Buxtehude composed the music, raised the funds, and of course conducted the performances for Abendmusiken, which were typically dramatic oratorios expounding on a biblical theme and often aligning with the time of the church year. For instance, an oratorio titled The Wedding of the Lamb included biblical texts about the wise and foolish virgins, familiar chorales such as “Wachet auf” (“Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying”), and new poetry sung in a duet between Christ and the Church.

While the people of Lübeck were immensely proud of Buxtehude’s Abendmusiken, the event did not always sail smoothly. Buxtehude sometimes had to beg for extra funds from the city’s elite, and he was not always personally satisfied with the performances. There were sometimes complaints about unruly young people making too much noise in the church—the church which was inevitably cold that time of year. Furthermore, most of Buxtehude’s Abendmusiken have been lost: three librettos and a handful of titles are all that remain. As discouraging as these circumstances may be, Buxtehude’s Abendmusiken exemplified a godly and selfless endeavor to edify the neighbors nearest to him, caring far more about his music and his people than how much he would be compensated or how far his fame might spread. In addition, Buxtehude’s initiative paved the way for a novelty in music production: sourcing funds from a business elite to put on a free public performance. His sacred vocal music—none of it an obligation to his duties—includes 114 compositions.

Outside the city of Lübeck, Buxtehude was known primarily as an organist. He composed around 137 keyboard works, which were frequently copied and studied by others. Johann Pachelbel once wrote to Buxtehude expressing interest in sending his thirteen-year-old son to study under him. Johann Sebastian Bach made his famous journey on foot to Lübeck to hear Buxtehude perform: After quadrupling his permitted time away from work, Bach returned to Arnstadt with a greater knowledge of the organ, as well as inspiration for his future arrangements of Christ lag in Todes Banden (BWV 4) and Jesu meine Freude (BWV 227). One of Buxtehude’s great supporters commented that “in the ardor of his compositions, Buxtehude understood well how to give a foretaste of heavenly bliss.”

Aside from his musical occupations, Buxtehude worked as the accountant and record keeper at St. Mary’s, wrote poetry, and served as godfather to many of Lübeck’s upper class. He died on May 9, 1707, and was buried in his own St. Mary’s Church.

Source: Dietrich Buxtehude: Organist in Lubeck by Kerala J. Snyder.

Arrangements by Dieterich Buxtehude

Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach

Awake, My Heart, with Gladness (BWV 441)

“Awake, My Heart, with Gladness” (Auf, auf, mein Herz, mit Freuden), text by Paul Gerhardt (1647). Tune by Johann Crüger (1648). Chorale setting by Johann Sebastian Bach (BWV 441 variant). Homophonic, SATB.

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Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach

Comfort, Comfort Ye My People (BWV 70.7)

“Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” (Tröstet, tröstet meine Lieben), text by Johann Olearius (1671). Chorale setting by Johann Sebastian Bach (BWV 70.7), originally for text Freu dich sehr. Homophonic, SATB.

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Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach

Commit Whatever Grieves Thee (BWV 244.44)

“Commit Whatever Grieves Thee” (Befiehl du deine Wege), text by Paul Gerhardt (1656). Tune (Herzlich tut mich verlangen) by Hans Leo Hassler (1601). Chorale setting by Johann Sebastian Bach (BWV 244.44). Homophonic, SATB.

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