Interlude: At the side of the road with Dietrich Buxtehude

Next week, we will start more than five months devoted to the twin geniuses of the late Baroque: Handel and Bach. Together (and with a significant assist from Telemann), these two composers wrested the center of musical development away from Italy and planted music’s flag stoutly in the German states, where it would remain, more or less, through to the end of the Second World War. It would be wrong, however, to consider that the German School took flight only in the late Baroque. This “at the side of the road” interlude (which briefly acknowledges important composers I have overlooked in this series) presents the music of the key figure who links the late Baroque German School back to Heinrich Schütz, widely considered to be the father of the German Baroque School.

In 1705, J.S. Bach was not the titan of music that history remembers today. Rather, Johann was a mere lad of 17 who had yet to make his mark on history. That fall, Bach set out on one of the few significant journeys he would take during his lifetime, nearly 250 miles to the city of Lübeck. Bach’s objective was an audience with the leading Germanic composer of his day: the organist Dietrich Buxtehude. Bach was not alone in making a pilgrimige to seek an audience with Buxtehude–Handel and Telemann each had made similar journeys. Legend has it that Buxtehude offered Handel and Bach the opportunity to succeed him, the price being that they should agree to marry his daughter. What are we to make of this daughter, who was rejected by both great composers, or of Telemann, who apparently wasn’t deemed worthy of the offer?

Such details are lost to history. Also lost are many of Buxtehude’s compositions. Only a cache of his organ and choral works come down to us, many of which were rediscovered in the 20th century. The others survived thanks largely to Bach, who made several manuscript copies of Buxtehude’s music during his time in Lübeck. The influence that Buxtehude had over the next generation of German composers is undeniable. While Schütz had studied with Italians, Buxtehude had been schooled entirely by Germans and Germanic music had begun to take on its own unique (and uniquely complex) character. It is in his footsteps, that the centuries of successive German composers would tred.

Here are some links to Buxtehude’s best works. Buxtehude’s compositions would weave a powerful spell over the young Bach, whose own music became significantly more complex after 1705–that is, more like Buxtehude’s works. In the last entry, I questioned whether Bach’s Goldberg Variations were inspired by Scarlatti’s Esserchisi. The more likely explanation is that both Scarlatti and Bach were inspired by Buxtehude’s earlier La Capricciosa.

Such is the joy of studying music history. You listen for quotes, for stylistic and compositional influences. And just when you think you have found something, maybe a possible source or some unique chord, you find something else later on to make you question everything you once believed.

Dietrich Buxtehude, La Capricciosa

Dietrich Buxtehude, Passacaglia in D Minor

Dietrich Buxtehude, Membra Jesu Nostri

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