Born around 1637 in the duchy of Holstein – now part of Germany but then under Danish control – Dietrich Buxtehude was the son of an organist and seems from the start to have been destined for the same profession himself. Buxtehude senior was organist at the Marienkirche at Helsingborg in Sweden from 1638 to 1641 and then at the Olaikirche at Helsingør in Denmark, and it was here that Dietrich probably received his early education. Organist’s posts for him at Helsingborg and at Helsingør’s Marienkirche followed, before in 1668 he took up the appointment he would hold for the rest of his life: organist and administrator of the Marienkirche in the north German town of Lübeck. There he married the daughter of his predecessor, Franz Tunder, and was later joined by his brother and father, on whose death in 1674 he wrote a moving lament.
The Lübeck organist’s job was one of the most important in a North Germany whose cities prized their church and civic music highly, and Buxtehude was fully worthy of the post. Widely recognised as one of the leading organists of the day, he was in himself an attraction – Bach and Handel both visited Lübeck to hear him play in the early 1700s – and in hindsight he can be seen as the most significant of Bach’s immediate predecessors as a composer for organ.
His vocal music was no less influential, however. In addition to playing the organ at services, Buxtehude was required to provide music for voices and instruments, and many of his more-than-100 cantatas must have been composed for this purpose. Buxtehude also revived Tunder’s practice of giving public concerts in the church, scheduling these Abendmusiken for 4 o’clock on five Sundays a year and some of his sacred compositions may have been heard here as well, alongside a number of lost oratorios. Bach almost certainly attended one of these concerts during his visit in 1705.
About 20 fine chamber sonatas for strings and continuo survive from Buxtehude’s pen, some of which were published in two sets in the 1690s. Buxtehude’s own participation in high level private music making is attested by a group portrait painted in 1674 by Johannes Voorhout, in which he is depicted as part of a music party in the company of other eminent German musicians, including Johann Adam Reincken, Johann Theile.
Profile © Lindsay Kemp