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Buxtehude Cantatas for Advent and Christmas

Dietrich Buxtehude

Dietrich Buxtehude

Dietrich Buxtehude was born in 1637 in what is now Denmark. At the age of 20 he was appointed organist at St. Mary’s Church in Helsingør, where his father had earlier worked and in 1660, he took a position at another St. Mary’s Church, this time in Halsingborg. For the last forty years of his life he worked in Lübeck, where he was organist at yet another St. Mary’s Church.

Buxtehude’s fame as an organist during his lifetime was considerable and for the first two centuries after his death, knowledge of Buxtehude’s works was limited almost entirely to his organ works. When the composer was “rediscovered” in the mid-nineteenth century, and his organ works were republished as an example of the style current before J.S. Bach. Interest in his vocal and chamber music works, however, has grown since the discovery of a significant collection of his works in the university library in Uppsala Sweden. The works on our program were part of this collection.

Our program includes seven cantatas whose central themes involve the expectation of the arrival of the divine beloved. The texts include mystical devotional poems, Lutheran chorales, and sctipture. The affective range of Buxtehude’s music for Advent and Christmas reflects the emotional richness of the season, from joyous anticipation to somber self-examination and spiritual preparation. The Advent season corresponds with the winter solstice, and the play, or battle, of light and dark in the world and in our own natures. However, there is also a profound tenderness to be heard, and wistful yearning for the future and eternally present miracle: “Eia, wärn wir da!” Oh, that we were there.

Advent music had a special place in the cultural life of Lübeck during Buxtehude’s tenure there through the institution of Abendmusik: an annual series of concerts, taking place on the four Sundays pf Advent. The Abendmusik featured musical-theatrical productions, performances of sacred operas or drammæ per musica. Buxtehude functioned as impresario, composer, artistic director, performer, and often as venture capitalist as well, for these events. Although he inherited the tradition with his post at St. Mary’s, Buxtehude developed the elaborate events that became a source of great civic pride in Lübeck and was often mentioned in 17th century guidebooks for visitors to the city. One of the most tantalizing lacunæ in the history of music in the 17th century is the loss of music from the Lübeck Abendmusik; although printed libretti survive, no complete scores or parts for corresponding music have come down to us. It is possible that some of the cantatas on our program may have been incorporated into the Abendmusik productions, though it is just as likely that these cantatas were intended for devotional services in court or private situations.

The cantatas are built up of contrasting sections. To this end the composer employs a range of textures and styles, from fugal writing to free monody, including choruses, ariosos, recitative-like sections, and arias; combining these musical elements to create beautifully expressive structures. Two of the cantatas on our program are through-composed: Fallax mundus and Mein Herz ist bereit. Although the sectional construction of these cantatasplaces them squarely in the seventeenth century, one is aware of beginnings of the polarity of recitative and aria that would dominate the next century. In Fürchtet euch nicht, a duet for bass and soprano, an opening concerto frames three strophes of an aria set off by instrumental ritornelli. Wie sol lich dich empfangen is a set of variations, each section based on the same harmonic progression.

Tremendous imagination and variety in the instrumental writing is characteristic of Buxtehude’s cantatas. The ritornelli serve to articulate sections of text and provide harmonic transitions, but they also reflect and amplify the affect of the text, and sometimes they offer an interval of wordless response. Several of the cantatas open with an independent sonata, each crafted to anticipate the affect of the text setting that follows.

Buxtehude’s only major publications during his lifetime were collections of chamber music. Two prints survive from the 1690s each of which contain seven sonatas for violin, viola da gamba, and continuo. The sonata on the first half of the program is drawn from the first of these collections, published in 1694. These sonatas owe more to the tradition of improvisatory virtuoso music of mid century Germany than to the Corelli trio sonatas that had become the model across Europe by the end of the century. Seven other sonatas survive in manuscript, including the Sonata in C for two violins, viola da gamba, and continuo on the second half of our program.

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