Why Bach walked 280 miles to a Baroque jam session

Buxtehude composed vocal music and organ works. © Charles Thibo
Buxtehude composed vocal music and organ works. © Charles Thibo

Buxtehude – now, what kind of name is that? It sounds like the name of a witch out of a German fairy tale. But no, Dieterich Buxtehude was a Danish-German composer and organist of the 17th century.

He composed organ works and vocal music, and in 1705, Johann Sebastian Bach travelled 280 miles by foot from Arnstadt to Lübeck in Northern Germany to hear the master perform his compositions and to learn the trade. He was deeply impressed and stayed for several months. Buxtehude was the musical reference of the time.

The piece I have singled out today has a Latin title: “Membra Jesu Nostri” (The Limbs of Jesus). Now, before you turn away from this post, be reassured, the music is beautiful and very relaxing, and since it is sung in Latin, you will not need to pay attention to the text! Listen to this, it is worthwhile.

A Medieval poem

“Membra Jesu Nostri” BuxWV 75 is a cycle of seven cantatas composed in 1680 and the first Lutheran oratorium ever. The text is taken from a Medieval poem and sung by two soprano voices, one alto, one tenor and one bass. Each cantata has an instrumental introduction, and Buxtehude attached great importance to the fact that the melodies match the text so that the cantatas could be easily sung and easily understood for those in the audience familiar with Latin. This is an important point, since Claudi Monteverdi (whom we have met) wrestled with this question in the context of the opera just as did Richard Wagner (whom we will meet in 2016) centuries later.

I must thank my friend @Spianistka, a Luxembourg pianist, to have dropped the name of Buxtehude and of this piece in a tweet early this year, because it was a true revelation. As you may have found out by now, I am really enthusiastic about Baroque music, and I must confess, the sacred music composed during that era moves me a lot. I penetrates deep into my soul and has a pacifying effect on my. My colleagues at work greatly benefit from this!

Evening concerts in Lübeck

Buxtehude was born in 1637 (or 1639?) in Helsingør (or Helsingborg?), part of Denmark at the time, part of Sweden today. His father was already an organist and performed in different Danish churches. Thus he was exposed to sacred music from his earliest age on and was taught by his father as it was the fashion in Baroque families of musicians. It made sense, the composers depended on generous patrons and a father could hope to be relieved by his son on the post of composer and organist. Buxtehude took over his post at the Marienkirche in Lübeck in 1668 and stayed on the job until he died  in 1707. He had been offered considerable latitude on his post and organized regular evening concerts with sacred music attended by local and visiting musicians alike. It was precisely one of these Baroque jam sessions that Bach attended.

When Buxtehude had reached retirement age, he offered his post to Georg Friedrich Händel and another composer Johann Mattheson, on the condition that the candidate would marry his eldest daughter. Both turned the offer down, can you believe that? But Buxtehude was by no means eccentric: He had married himself the daughter of his predecessor. Love was not really an issue when it came to the question of who was going to marry whom!

“Membra Jesu Nostri” has been recorded by the Canadian ensemble “Les Voix Baroques” in 2007 and is available on Spotify.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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