BUXTEHUDE: Sacred Cantatas (Aradia Ensemble/ Bonnie Silver/ Katherine Hill/ Kevin Mallon/ Matthew White/ Paul Grindlay) (Naxos: 8.557041)
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Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707)
At the time of his death on 9th May 1707 DieterichBuxtehude was said to be about seventy years old. Wecan, therefore, estimate his birth date as 1637. Hisfather, Johannes, was an organist and held positions atSt Mary's Church in Helsingborg, and later in St Olai innearby Helsing?©r. It is likely that Dieterich was born inthe Danish town of Helsingborg, now part of Sweden.
Although we have little information about his training, itis probable that he studied the organ with his father, andit is mainly as a composer of organ works that he isremembered today. His skills as a performer, however,were widely known, a fact exemplified by the youngJohann Sebastian Bach, who in 1707 walked 260 milesto hear Buxtehude play \in order to comprehend onething and another about his art".
Dietrich Buxtehude was still a young man when, in1657 or 1658, he took on his father's former position asorganist at St Mary's Church in Helsingborg. In October1660, again like his father, he moved to Helsing?©r tobecome organist at St Mary's Church there. In this laterpost his responsibilities included writing instrumentaland vocal music. This would have given him the trainingto consider the position of organist and Werkmeister atSt Mary's in L??beck, a position that had become vacanton the death of the organist Franz Tunder, who, as wellas being Buxtehude's father-in-law, may also have beenone of his teachers. Buxtehude applied for the place andwas successful.
Buxtehude's new position in L??beck was prestigiousand highly paid. The position of Werkmeister wasadministrative and also included responsibility astreasurer of the church. For the next 35 years he madeSt Mary's the centre of his musical life. He clearlyrelished the opportunity to continue the performingtraditions established by Franz Tunder. As well asplaying during the services, he gave concerts on thelarge organ, and regularly performed with a violinist andlutenist. (Buxtehude's only major publication in hislifetime were two collections of violin sonatas.) He alsoinaugurated a series of concerts called Abendmusiken,which gave him the opportunity to present concerts ofhis larger scale vocal and instrumental compositions.
In 1703 Buxtehude began to look for a successor.
He was 66 and had three unmarried daughters, andfollowing current practice he wanted to make as acondition of acceptance of the position that thesuccessful candidate would also marry his eldestdaughter Anna Margreta, then aged 28. Two eminentand famous composers, Johann Mattheson and GeorgFrederich Handel, who were both in the employ of theOpera in Hamburg, travelled together to be interviewedfor the position. Apparently they listened to Buxtehude"with dignified attention". Their swift return toHamburg the next day is witness to the fact that theywere not impressed with the marriage conditionsinvolved in the appointment.
The greatest portion of Buxtehude's music is largerscale sacred cantatas written for St Mary's, L??beck.
There are over 120 vocal works in a wide variety ofscorings, genres and styles. These range from works forone voice and continuo, to works for nine voices andfifteen instruments and continuo, divided into six choirs.
There is also a significant amount of secular music,more than twenty instrumental sonatas, numerousharpsichord suites and ten wedding arias. Indeed theword 'aria' was a common vocal designation used byBuxtehude. This well reflects the style of the lyricalsacred cantata or sacred concerto that flourished inGermany in the seventeenth century, as represented onthis recording.
At the start of the seventeenth century Lutherandevotion was still based around the chorales as set byLuther. By the 1660s, when Buxtehude was writing, anew type of subjective devotion was common. Ratherthan an absolute form of worship, this new devotion wasbased around the individual's emotional connection withGod. A certain influence was also the popularity ofItalian songs, a fashion that was sweeping throughGermany at the time. The roots of the cantata wereclearly established by German composers in the earlypart of the seventeenth century. In the works ofPraetorius, Sch??tz, Schein and Scheidt we see howbiblical texts were transformed into sacred concertosand strophic poetry into arias or songs. Sacredconcertos, for voices and instruments, were described atthe time as pieces where the voices and instrumentswould vie for attention, while instrumental ritornellicontrast with musical motives that are clearly passedaround. The chorale, however, is never very far awayand is often the centrepiece of the composition.
All the vocal pieces presented on this recording givea good illustration of the form of the sacred cantata. Allstart with either an instrumental sonata or ritornello.
Sung text is interspersed with instrumental interjections,as in the cantata Jesu, meine Freud und Lust, or there areverses with instrumental ritornelli responses, as in Wennich, Herr Jesu, habe dich.
In the larger cantatas for all three voices, Was fragich nach der Welt and Wie schmeckt es so lieblich undwohl, the music is crafted to allow for the maximum ofcontrast. Instrumental sonatas and ritornelli arejuxtaposed with sections where all voices andinstruments are heard together and sections where eachvoice sings a verse on its own, accompanied bycontinuo.
In contrast to these larger works, the four solocantatas give a more intimate expression of Buxtehude'scraft. Jubilate Domino is extremely extravert andvirtuosic, perhaps one of the best known of Buxtehude'scantatas. The text is taken from Psalm XCVII. In theouter vocal sections the composer has projected thePsalmist's command to praise God with the sound oftrumpets and of the horn, while the gentler middlesection sings of the lyre, perhaps the use of the viola dagamba, symbolizing the ancient cithara mentioned in thepsalm.
Wenn ich, Herr Jesu, habe dich, is written in adifferent style. The text, by Anna Sophia, Countess ofHesse-Darmstadt, consists of rhymed verses or strophes.
Each verse, interestingly marked 'aria', is introduced byan instrumental ritornello and expresses the Christianbelief of salvation from suffering through faith in JesusChrist. The mood, set by the sombre key of E minor,also reflects the humanity of the conflict with sufferingand evil.
The text for Jesu, meine Freud und Lust comes froma collection of 'Sacred Shepherd Songs' (HeiligeSeelen-Lust, oder Geistliche Hirten-Lieder, 1657) by thepoet Johann Angelus Silesius (1624-1677). The text andthe music are sensuously reflected in the bright key of Amajor and the five-part string-writing.
Sicut Moses is based on the Gospel for TrinitySunday. It has an unusual amount of expansiveinstrumental writing typical of Buxtehude's sonatas fortwo violins and gamba. It is a particularly joyful work ascan be heard in the final Amen section.
By way of contrast we have included in therecording a work for singers and continuo only, In te,Domine, speravi and an arrangement for strings ofBuxtehude's well known Passacaglia, BuxWV 161.Kevin Mallon