2015-01-11 Notes from the Bench

“Praeludium in D Major” by Dietrich Buxtehude

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate


Dietrich Buxtehude (c.1637-1707) was an organist and composer of the mid-baroque period and today is considered among the most important composers of the era. Buxtehude was born in Helsingborg, Skåne, at that time a part of Denmark, but now part of Sweden. Buxtehude is probably best known as the organist for the Marienkirche in Lübeck, the principle church of an imperial city located in present-day northern Germany. Buxtehude succeeded Franz Tunder in this position in 1668, with the stipulation that Buxtehude agree to marry Tunder’s daughter, Anna Margarethe, a common practice during this time. In 1703, when Buxtehude was ready to retire, he offered his position to George Friderich Handel and Johann Mattheson with the requirement that they marry his daughter; however they both refused the offer and quickly left Lübeck. In addition to his duties as a musician, Buxtehude attended to the church finances as a bookkeeper.

Buxtehude composed a variety of vocal and instrumental works, but he is best known for his important organ works which are included among most organists’ standard repertoire. His organ works included pieces based on chorale melodies, such as the chorale fantasia heard during the prelude last week, and “free organ works”; compositions based on material freely created by the composer. Buxtehude’s toccatas and praeludia (preludes), including today’s postlude, “Praeludium in D major” are of the free organ work type. Germanic composers throughout the baroque era applied the term praeludium generically to a variety of free-style keyboard works. Among the distinguishing characteristics of Buxtehude’s free organ works is a structure based on multiple sections that typically alternate between free, improvisatory styles and strict counterpoint. A variety of baroque era free-form writing styles are heard in “Praeludium in D major” which include the stylus fantasticus (fantastic style) characterized by brilliant and rapid figuration, inspired by Italian toccatas, and the durezze e ligature (dissonant and connected), chordal sections with prolonged dissonances, another Italian influence. The contrapuntal sections are typically brief fugues that are not extensively developed.



Buxtehude’s compositions influenced other composers of the era, including Johann Sebastian Bach. The Marienkirche had a tradition of holding a series of music performances, Abendmusiken, or evening music, that attracted a variety of musicians. In 1705-06, Bach, who was at that time 20 years old, traveled from Arnstadt to Lübeck by foot, a distance of approximately 250 miles, to hear both the performances of the Abendmusiken festival and the famous Buxtehude play. The experience greatly inspired the young genius and there are accounts of how his organ playing and composition style changed after this visit to Lübeck.

Over this past week, many people have had the opportunity to hear the music of Johann Sebastian Bach during the Arizona Bach festival. Today, we may listen to a composition by a composer who inspired and influenced one of the greatest musical geniuses of all time.

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