BUXTEHUDE: 7 Sonatas, BuxWV 252-258 (Jaap ter Linden/ John Holloway/ Lars Ulrik Mortensen) (Naxos: 8.557248)
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Dietrich Buxtehude (c.1637-1707): Complete Chamber Music 1
Seven Sonatas, Op. 1
In 1668, when Buxtehude was about thirty (neither thedate nor the place of his birth are known), he wasappointed to the coveted post of organist at St Mary'sChurch in the free Hanseatic city of L??beck on the Balticcoast of Germany. Until then his upbringing, education,and musical career had taken place within the boundariesof the kingdom of Denmark. His father had left the littletown of Oldesloe in the duchy of Holstein to serve asorganist in Helsingborg, and from there he moved at thebeginning of the 1640s to Helsing?©r. It was in those twocities on opposite sides of the ?ÿre Sound that the youngerBuxtehude began his career as a professional organist,ultimately being appointed in 1660 by the Germancongregation of St Mary's in Helsing?©r. His musicalhorizons, however, were not restricted to the immediatelocality. Only forty kilometres south of Helsing?©r lay theDanish capital of Copenhagen, with its flourishingmusical environment both ecclesiastical and secular, andBuxtehude must have been familiar with developmentsthere. In the 1660s the Danish royal chapel was under thedirection of Kaspar Forster the Younger, and theorganists of the six churches in the city attracted pupilsfrom all over Europe, including, for example, JohannLorentz the Younger, who probably taught Buxtehude,and gave public recitals to large audiences in the churchof St Nicholas.
Buxtehude's new position in L??beck far exceededthat in Helsing?©r in both prestige and remuneration. Herehe found a musical culture not far behind that ofCopenhagen, with even court music within his reach, fornot far away lay the palace of the Duke of Gottorp. StMary's, L??beck, was the most important church in thecity, the official place of worship of the city council, andin the next forty years, until his death in 1707, Buxtehudewas to practise a range of musical activities there thatwent far beyond his obligations as organist andWerkmeister (administrator and treasurer). While theKantor of the church bore the main responsibility for themusical establishment, and in particular for directing thechoir, the organist had to play at services and onimportant feasts and holidays, but there was also avigorous tradition of secular music, and the citymusicians, the so-called Ratsmusik, forged a close linkbetween ecclesiastical and municipal music. TheRatsmusik in Buxtehude's time comprised seven highlyqualified musicians retained, like the organist himself,directly by the Senate. Their duties included playing inchurch when instruments were required there, as well asappearing at public and private functions at the commandof the Senate and citizenry. The string players hadparticularly proud traditions going back to the beginningof the century, with violin and gamba virtuosi, as inHamburg, famed throughout Europe.
The major musical centre of Hamburg lay not faraway, with an opera house and a concert society(collegium musicum) as well as its long-standing churchmusic traditions. Here lived a number of prominentcomposers, organists, choir directors, and othersbelonging to Buxtehude's circle of acquaintances, amongthem contemporary celebrities like Johann AdamReincken, Johann Theile, Christoph Bernhard, andMatthias Weckmann.
Much of the surviving music of Buxtehude, hiscantatas, his big freely composed organ works, and hismusic for instrumental ensemble, was in fact not writtenas part of his duties as organist. Much of his churchmusic was probably the result of close and fruitfulcooperation with the kantors of St Mary's, with whom heseems to have shared the task of producing vocal musicfor the liturgy. Many works were not in any wayconnected with his church appointment. This applies inparticular to the famous Abendmusiken that had beenestablished by his predecessor Franz Tunder. Buxtehudeexpanded these to five annual church concerts withperformances of large-scale oratorio-like works, word ofwhich spread throughout Northern Europe.
Buxtehude published two collections of instrumentalchamber music in the mid-1690s. Apart from a fewoccasional works, these are the only works of his printedduring his lifetime. Opus 1, containing seven sonatas forviolin and viola da gamba with harpsichord continuo, isundated but probably appeared in 1694. Opus 2, withseven more sonatas for the same combination, followedtwo years later. Though instrumental composition wasnot one of Buxtehude's obligations as an organist, it wasby no means uncommon at that time for organists topublish music as free artists, without any particularoccasion of performance in mind. A few years earlierBuxtehude's senior friend and colleague in Hamburg,Johann Adam Reincken, had published a collection ofsonatas for two violins, viola da gamba, and continuounder the title Hortus musicus, and instrumental chambermusic could be used both in and out of church. It is likelythat sonatas were played in St Mary's on major feast daysand during the distribution of Holy Communion. In thesecular musical environment of L??beek there would, ofcourse, have been both professional and amateurmusicians who were interested in playing sonatas writtenby the organist to the Senate.
Buxtehude was nearly sixty when he published hissonatas, but he had been practising the genre for manyyears. One of the few compositions that can be attributedwith reasonable certainty to his Helsing?©r period is afragmentarily preserved sonata, and in 1684 it wasannounced that he would soon be publishing a collectionof sonatas for two and three violins, viola da gamba, andcontinuo 'suitable for performance both as Tafelmusikand in church'. This collection probably never came out,but eight unpublished sonatas survive, some of whichmay very well have been intended for it. Buxtehudededicated Opus 1 to his employers, the mayor andsenators of L??beck, and Opus 2 to his special patron,Johann Ritter. The dedication of the first volume refers toit as the 'first part' of his sonatas, and there are otherindications that he regarded the two volumes as a unit:they are written for the same instrumental combination,each contains seven works, and they are organizedaccording to key in such a way that between them theyencompass all the major and minor keys of a seven-notediatonic scale beginning on F, omitting only F minor andB flat minor. The key sequence of Opus 1 is F major, Gmajor, A minor, B flat major, C major, D minor, E minor,and of Opus 2 B flat major, D major, G minor, C minor,A major, E major, F majorThe rediscovery of Buxtehude's music began morethan a century ago with his organ works. He was rightlyseen as an important source of inspiration for the youngJ.S. Bach, not only in the period of a few months that thelatter spent studying with him in L??beck. Later came thediscovery of more than a hundred cantatas by Buxtehudein the famous collection of Gustav D??ben the Elder, theseventeenth-century Swedish organist and courtcomposer who was one of Buxtehude's great admirers.
Buxtehude's instrumental chamber music has, however,remained strangely neglected until recently. Apart fromunpublished sonatas, the D??ben Collection (now inUppsala University Library) contains the only intactcopies of his two books of sonatas. The personal contactbetween Buxtehude in L??beck and the D??ben family inSweden is just one among many lines of communicationthat existed between musical centres in the Baltic of thisperiod, from Stockholm in the North to the Southerncoastal cities, from Reval by way of Riga, Konigsberg,and Danzig to Stralsund, L??beck, and Hamburg.
In the choice of instruments for his sonatasBuxtehude avoided the use of the violone or cello as alow-range melodic instrument, which was thepredominant usage in the Italian baroque sonata,preferring to follow German tradition by using thegentler sounding viola da gamba, a bass in