In the autumn of 1705, Johann Sebastian Bach requested four weeks’ leave from his church in Arnstadt to travel to Lubeck and learn from the famous Dietrich Buxtehude, organist of the Marienkirche. He made the 280-mile journey on foot, leaving for Lübeck in November and returning the following February, at which time he was rebuked by the Arnstadt Consistory for his prolonged absence, and also for his improper playing, making “curious variations in the chorale” so that the congregation was confused by it. Although there is no precise evidence about what exactly Bach heard and experienced in Lübeck, the Arnstadt account suggests that his organ playing changed dramatically under Buxtehude’s influence. Bach’s early organ music also testifies to his study of Buxtehude’s music and the north German style of composing for the instrument, with its virtuosic figuration, important pedal solos, and the alternation of improvisatory and contrapuntal sections. This recording explores the often intangible links between the two composers, bringing together for the first time some of their most popular works for the organ.
Buxtehude’s Prelude, Fugue and Ciacona in C (BuxWV 137) is foremost among his most frequently performed pieces. Despite the tripartite title, the work actually contains more than three sections, with florid improvisatory passages interspersed between sections of imitative counterpoint. The opening pedal flourish typifies the declamatory style with which most of Buxtehude’s free works begin and conclude. Such pedal solos exploit the massive pedal divisions of north German instruments, with their imposing pedal towers at either side of the main organ case. The repeated bass line of the Ciacona also benefits from the strong pedal reeds. Buxtehude creates unity between the three main sections of the piece by using similar themes: Both the playful fugue subject and the ostinato of the Ciacona are derived from the pedal figuration of the Prelude.
The Ciacona in E Minor (BuxWV 160)demonstrates Buxtehude’s fertile imagination in devising music over a descending bass pattern. The repeated variations provide a compendium of the most frequently used figurations in Baroque keyboard music, composed to create one of Buxtehude’s most memorable works. To bring out the charm and elegance of the writing, I chose to alternate the flute registers of the Fritts organ’s two manuals.
German composers during the second half of the 17th century were influenced by Italian music, and Buxtehude’s Canzonetta in G Major (BuxWV 171) reflects a genre that was largely developed by Frescobaldi, where a lively theme, usually containing repeated notes, is treated in imitation, first in duple meter and then transformed into triple meter. As in the Italian models, the two sections are connected by a short improvisatory passage.
The Neumeister Collection is an 18th-century manuscript of chorales that was discovered in the Yale University Music Library in December of 1984, just before the tricentennial celebrations of Bach’s birth. The manuscript contained 33 previously unknown organ chorales by J. S. Bach, which have been dated circa 1705, the year that he walked to Lübeck. The dramatic use of harmony and rhetorical silence in “Jesu meine Freude” (BWV 1105) might suggest that it was composed after Bach’s meeting with Buxtehude, while “Machs mit mir, Gott, nach deiner Güt” (BWV 957), with its extended sequences, is probably one of Bach’s earliest preserved chorale settings for the organ.
The one piece from the Arnstadt Congregational Chorales included here, “Lobt Gott, ihr Christen, allzugleich” (BWV 732), represent the type of accompaniment that the young Bach provided to congregational singing, where harmonizations of each phrase of the chorale were interspersed with improvised interludes. The Consistory’s rebuke of Bach’s accompanying may have resulted from the exceptionally rich harmonies and keyboard virtuosity heard in these examples.
Although Bach’s three-movement work in C (Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C Major, BWV 564) is different in many respects from Buxtehude’s (track 1), certain common traits link the two. The toccata contains some of Bach’s most elaborate free writing for the organ in the Italian style, as well as his most demanding pedal solo, possibly a reference to the prominent use of pedal in Buxtehude’s C-major prelude. The adagio presents a skillfully ornamented melody over a simple accompaniment in the left hand and pedals; this dissolves into an extended series of suspensions evoking the durezze e ligature (dissonances and tied notes) of the Italian style. The fugue is exceptionally rhythmic, with the changing accents of hemiola punctuating the subject’s close. It concludes the work with a verve that is reminiscent of Buxtehude.
I have chosen to include on this recording Buxtehude’s short settings of the Magnificat noni toni (BuxWV 205) rather than his larger and better-known organ Magnificats because this is the melody that Bach used in his only surviving organ setting. The two Buxtehude verses may originally have been part of a larger cycle of variations, which in turn may have been used in alternation with the Magnificat chorale, “Meine Seele erhebt den Herren.” In the first verse of Buxtehude’s piece, the cantus is heard in long notes in the pedal on the Nachthorn 2' of the Fritts organ. The second verse features the first three notes of the theme treated contrapuntally between the four parts.
This same melody on the ninth tone, or “tonus peregrinus,” serves as the subject for Bach’s Fugue on the Magnificat(BWV 733). The Magnificat chorale was the primary hymn for the Visitation of Mary, and it was sung after the regular Vespers service, following a “praeambulo auf der Orgel.” Bach’s fugue may have served as a prelude to congregational singing, or perhaps more likely, it may have preceded concerted vocal performances of the Magnificat. The melody is treated imitatively in four parts before the pedal adds a fifth voice, stating the subject in augmentation. The cumulative effect of this pedal entrance is very much in keeping with the concept of magnifying praise to God.
The D-Minor Toccatas of Bach (BWV 565) and Buxtehude (BuxWV 155) bear striking similarities that can be heard to advantage here. Both reflect the stylus phantasticus, a dramatic style of composition that features violent contrasts and improvisatory flourishes. Both toccatas open with short, memorable motives that punctuate large pauses, and both feature the pedal in sustained lower notes and solo passages. The change from this seemingly spontaneous virtuosity to the stricter pulse required by imitative writing creates the structure of both works, although the single Bach fugue is longer than the interspersed fugal sections of the Buxtehude. Sequential repeats of rapid figuration alternating with full chords erupt in the final sections of both pieces, providing a return to the opening free style after the last fugal statements. These are among the best-known organ works by both composers, and one cannot help wondering about mutual influences between them.
Buxtehude’s setting of “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland” (BuxWV 211) presents the chorale in the top voice, where it is gracefully ornamented. The short interludes introducing each melodic phrase are vastly expanded in Bach’s setting of the same chorale, BWV 659, where each line of the chorale is treated imitatively in the accompanying parts before the heavily decorated melody enters in the right hand. These pieces demonstrate the way in which Bach developed his unique musical style from foundations laid by his predecessors, notably Buxtehude.
The sophistication and complexity of the Praeludium in G Minor (BuxWV 149) suggest that it is one of Buxtehude’s last pieces for the organ, and it may therefore have been “in progress” at the time of Bach’s visit. It is an unusual preludium in several ways. The opening free section is built over a repeated pedal motive, thereby combining improvisatory figuration and ostinato technique. The first fugue is the only “ricercar-style” section in all of Buxtehude’s preludia, as unique as the following “continuo-style” free section (marked Allegro). The second fugue is one of Buxtehude’s best, a fuga pathetica with an expressive use of harmony. It is tantalizing to speculate that the young Bach may actually have heard Buxtehude as he was composing this noble work.