This is the seventeenth essay in the series, where TCG Nordica every week introduce a famous Nordic artist’s life and work.
Readers of this series will perhaps have noticed that even though we have by now introduced artists of all kinds and from almost all parts of northern Europe, they are all relatively recent. The oldest one was born in 1822 less than 200 years ago – a relatively short period seen in the larger picture of the history of civilization in Northern Europe. There are several reasons that explain why it is so, even if there are few or no good reasons why it should be so.
One reason is simply that the art of earlier times is often less accessible. Language can be a barrier, and artworks gets destroyed or become lost to a variety of reasons. Descriptions of performing artists such as actors, dancers and musicians are plenty, but only relatively recently have technology found ways of capturing sound and moving pictures, making these artists available to people across time and space.
Another, and perhaps more important reason is that as art gets older it can seem to have little relevance for us. The world of 350 years ago is simply a lot stranger to us than the much more recognizable world of 150 years ago. As social, political and religious contexts change so does art. It is often more difficult to fit early artists in to the histories of modern states taught in schools, exactly because those states (and their art) have changed dramatically since.
The life and career of Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) is an excellent example of this complexity. He born either in Holstein in northern Germany where the Danish king ruled as duke at the time, or, more probably, in Helsingborg, a part of Denmark until 1658 when it became a part of Sweden. Buxtehude followed in his father’s footsteps as an organist, first in Helsingborg in the years 1657-1658 and then in the Danish city of Helsingør 1660-1668. In 1668 he became organist in Marienkirche in Lübeck, Northern Germany, one of the most prestigious positions an organist could obtain at the time, and he stayed there until his death in 1707. While the texts of his vocal music are all in Latin and German, there are some indications that he spoke Danish with his family. Also, in his obituary a Latin Lübeck newspaper wrote that he “recognized Denmark as his fatherland”, though by now it should be clear that the Denmark mentioned in the newspaper was quite different than the Denmark today.
How Buxtehude identified himself is in many ways quite unimportant to us. His music, in any case, had nothing especially Danish about it. While it is filled with a radiant light, this is not the light of the Nordic summer nights we find in Nordic composers 200 years later, but rather the heavenly light of German high baroque: A special Nordic style in classical music simply hadn’t been invented yet. Buxtehude’s instead played and wrote in “Stylus Fantasticus” or the Fantastic Style, an Italo-Germanic style of music in vogue at the time, characterized by short contrasting episodes in the music, elaborate ornamentations and virtuoso improvisation-like passages. Most famous of all Buxtehude’s music is his majestic prelude in C major, but he composed a whole treasure chamber both organ and other music of which a few highlights are recommended in the bottom of this essay. His music is regarded as one of the finest examples of this style, and he as one of the greatest organ composers of all time.
In 1703 the ageing Buxtehude was considering retiring from his busy position in Marienkirche. Two of the late baroque giants, Georg Friederich Händel and the now largely forgotten Johann Mattheson, both of them still young at the time, went to Lübeck to see if they could get the job. In accordance with the custom, one condition to get the job was to marry Buxtehude’s oldest surviving daughter (just as Buxtehude had married his predecessor’s daughter). Upon seeing the daughter both of them declined the job and left the day after their arrival!
Another story showing the respect and influence Buxtehude commanded among musicians at his time, tells us of how a 20 year old Johann Sebastian Bach, the greatest western composer of all time, in 1705 walked roughly 400 kilometres from Arnstadt to Lübeck, where he stayed for three months to hear Buxtehude play the organ, and in Bach’s own words, “to comprehend one thing and another about his art”. Bach’s own compositions shows clear influences from Buxtehude.
If societies of earlier times can seem foreign to us, then the art they produced is surely one of the best ways of bridging that gap. Listen to Buxtehude’s music and step into a world full of splendour.
Buxtehude’s organ music is part of the standard repertoire for organists today and several recordings of his complete organ works has been made. Here are three of the most beloved of Buxtehude’s organ pieces in a recording by Italian Simone Stella:
Apart from his famous organ compositions, Buxtehude also wrote a lot of other music. One gem is the “O fröliche Stunden” (“Oh happy times”), here with the wonderful soprano Emma Kirkby, from an album on which other of Buxtehude’s vocal music also can be found.
Text: Skjold Andreas Arendt