BUXTEHUDE: La Capricciosa / Suite in G Minor (Glen Wilson) (Naxos: 8.557413)
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Dietrich Buxtehude (c.1637-1707)
Dietrich Buxtehude was probably born in 1637 inOldesloe in the Duchy of Holstein, then Danishterritory, now German. A year later the family moved toHelsingborg in Scania, then Danish, now Swedish,when his father Johannes was appointed organist. Thusthree countries call Buxtehude their own. Given thefluidity of borders in the region, it is of no greatimportance, but Buxtehude is said to have consideredhimself a Dane. Perhaps the Free Imperial City ofL??beck, where he spent the last forty years of hisseventy-year lifespan as organist of the Marienkirche,has the best claim. Like Sweelinck before him, whoseldom left Amsterdam, Buxtehude stayed close to hisinstrument all through his years of maturity.
Buxtehude's large corpus of brilliant organ musichas overshadowed his equally impressive vocal andchamber music, some of which was composed for hisfamous Advent Sunday concerts, the Abendmusiken.
His harpsichord works are less numerous, and buriedmainly at the back of organ editions, where they areignored by organists because they have no pedal parts.
The standard edition of the keyboard works which areclearly secular, suites and variations, announces itself as'Buxtehude - Piano Works', which is really no help. Thepieces contained therein seem at first glance ratherconventional. They are deceptively simple, like Scarlattior Mozart. It is hoped that this recording will contributeto a re-evaluation of Buxtehude as one of the finestGerman composers for the harpsichord of theseventeenth century, the only one worthy of mention inthe same breath with Froberger. He did what Bach didhalf a century later: he took the forms he saw aroundhim, French suites, Italian toccatas and canzonas,variation techniques from the German Sweelinck-schooland later on from Rome, and made them unmistakablyhis own.
Of the two suites offered here, the Suite in G minorfollows the Allemande - Courante - Sarabande - Gigueorder of dances that had only very recently becomefashionable. The other is a rare hybrid of suite andchorale-partita, wherein the chorale melody Auf meinenlieben Gott is varied through a sequence of dancemovements, Allemande - Double (variation)- Sarabande- Courante - Gigue.
The two Praeludia hark back to the luxuriantRoman toccata tradition of the earlier seventeenthcentury. Quasi-improvisatory passages alternate withbrief fugues. That in G minor is one of the grandestexamples of this Stylus Phantasticus. There is no fixedform here. The compartmentalised Prelude and Fuguewas a product of classicising tendencies in the latter partof the century.
The Toccata in G major already clearly tends in thisdirection. Buxtehude is responding here, as well, to thenew, more mechanical virtuosity of the famous Romanharpsichordist Bernardo Pasquini. There is only onefugue after the initial free section. It is followedseamlessly by a remarkable coda, where a six-note basslineis varied like a chaconne on a roller-coaster.
The Canzonetta in G major represents one of thetwo forerunners of the Bachian fugue, the Canzona allafrancese, the other being the ricercar, of which noexample by Buxtehude survives. In the Canzonetta,Buxtehude continues the earlier tradition ofsectionalisation by varying the theme - just once, in thiscase.
The Aria with two variations in A minor, whichglows darkly like a candle-lit interior of the seventeenthcentury, still owes much to the Sweelinck tradition, andmust be an earlier work than La Capricciosa. This latteris Buxtehude's Goldberg Variations, a catalogue ofvariation techniques on a monumental scale, by far thelongest of the handful of sets that have come down to usfrom his pen. There is even a parody of a badharpsichordist, with too many ornaments (all on thewrong notes), rhythmically and harmonically erratic,choppy line and heavy hand - a type, alas, all toofamiliar even today. To avoid misunderstandings, Ishould make it clear that I am talking about Variation27.
A comparison with Bach's masterpiece revealssome striking parallels: large quantities of very similarfiguration, identical key and number of movements, andprecisely half the number of bars in the same binaryform. Most arresting, however, is the fact that, in spiteof the source's claim that it is an aria di inventionenewly-composed), Buxtehude's theme is theBergamasca, a simple I-IV-V-I harmonic scheme, witha melody known in Germany as Kraut und R??ben,which Bach used in his final variation, the Quodlibet.
These are too many similarities to be coincidental. Bachmust have known the piece, and paid homage to hisgreatest mentor in the Goldberg Variations, as he did afew years later in The Art of Fugue.
It is even possible that both sets are the fruit of anencounter between a mature master and a young genius:Bach and Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, Buxtehude andJohann Pachelbel. Pachelbel, who had close links to theBach family, dedicated his most famous set of publishedvariations (Hexachordum Apollonis) to Buxtehude, andthe similarities in their variation styles are so great thatit is impossible to say who influenced whom moreprofoundly. The younger man certainly had more firsthandfamiliarity with late developments in Italy andAustria, but he seems to have comprehended the truestature of the L??beck organist, learned from him, andheld him in the highest esteem.
There is also an interesting parallel with two earliersets of variations: Froberger's Meyerin and Reincken'sset on the same tune. Both are in G major, andReincken, the emulator/expander in this case, alsodoubled the number of variations, from nine to eighteen.
Thus Froberger, Frescobaldi's prophet in Germany,seems to stand at the beginning of a concatenation ofGerman variations in G, the key of such popular Italianthemes as Ruggiero, Aria di Fiorenza, the Ciacona, andof course, the Bergamasca. Bach knew Reincken, theorganist of St Catherine's in Hamburg, from his schooldays, and performed on his organ with Reincken presentin 1720, two years before his death at the age of 99 - sohere we have another wellspring for the GoldbergVariations.
Without Buxtehude, no Bach. Everyone knows thestory of how Bach got into trouble with his employers inArnstadt by massively overstaying the leave of absencegranted him for study with Buxtehude, and how hecould have succeeded to the organ at the Marienkirche ifhe had been willing to marry Buxtehude's spinsterdaughter. Such anecdotes tend to obscure the salient factthat Bach risked his important first job as an organist inorder to imbibe a little longer at the most richly flowingsource available to him. Too many organists go back nofurther in their six hundred years of repertoire thanBuxtehude, and see him as a kind of preparatory stage tothe 'real' music of J.S. Bach, and harpsichordistsgenerally neglect him. This is a great injustice. DietrichBuxtehude was one of the greatest of a number of giantsupon whose shoulders Bach perched. The fully-ripenedcomposer of the Goldberg Variations and The Art ofFugue still looked to him for inspiration.Glen Wilson