Chasing away dark thoughts with Buxtehude’s sonatas 

Warmth. © Charles Thibo

From time to time and mostly out of the blue a feeling of sadness sneaks into my heart, and I would be hard pressed to tell you where it came from or what triggered it. I’ve looked for reasons and found none. So be it then. If I have a quiet moment, I indulge in a piece of Baroque music. Baroque music can be such a consolation. Most often I would pick a piece composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, but not too long ago I settled for Dieterich Buxtehude.

Sacred and secular music

From 1667 until his death in 1707 Buxtehude was the organist of the Marienkirche in Lübeck (Northern Germany) and in charge of  music for the needs of liturgy. However he also composed and performed secular concerts, his Abendmusiken (spiritual evening concerts), and chamber works. Buxtehude’s output of both sacred and secular works was huge, and if you consider that many works have been lost, he easily qualifies for the label “prolific composer”.

The piece I chose to chase away those dark thoughts has the title Sonata in A minor for two violins, viola da gamba and basso continuo* (BuxWV 272), a beautiful piece. I appreciate its moderate tempo, its solemn, pacifying expression. It has been recorded by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra under the guidance of Ton Koopman, who set out to record all of Buxtehude’s known works. A fantastic endeavour resulting in an endless supply of delightful music for my ears!

Lost manuscripts

It is unknown at what exact date Buxtehude composed this piece. Two sets of each time seven sonatas for two violins, viola da gamba and harpsichord have been published in 1694 and 1696 respectively. BuxWV 272 however wasn’t included in any of the two sets, it existed as manuscript only and was considered lost for a long time. One of the fascinating aspects of Baroque music is that we often know so little about it. Printing was not yet an everyday technology, manuscripts of scores and diary notes had to be copied by hand. Mistakes occurred, pages got mixed up, and composers often omitted their names or the dates of completion. Manuscripts got lost, burned in fires and drowned floods, ideas were stolen and reappeared in someone else’s works.

Reliable information about how Baroque instruments sounded is scarce, and I often wondered, what Bach’s voice might have been like or how Buxtehude’s choral music sounded when they sang masses in the Marienkirche of Lübeck. Any contemporary musician recording Baroque music embarks on a discovery journey as he digs up manuscripts in libraries or compares different printing editions of a score, often published many years after the composer’s death. Indiana Jones’ quest of the Holy Grail was a walk in the park compared to this work of a music archeologist! So exciting!

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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2 thoughts on “Chasing away dark thoughts with Buxtehude’s sonatas ”

  1. Great article about the fascination of Buxtehude, who has been the “Colleague of the Week” in my fb group. I also posted a link to this article there. 🙂

    1. Excellent, thank you. I am very glad you liked it and I will check out your blog in the next days.

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