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Buxtehude Organ Works - Complete (7 CDs!)/Davidsson
Buxtehude Organ Works - The Complete Collection/Hans Davidsson

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Program and Notes Reviews

Recent research shows that Buxtehude had only mean-tone organs at his disposal during his life. Although there are many good recordings on well-tempered organs (including some antiques), performing these works on mean-tone instruments requires both a radical re-assessment of traditional performance ideas and a large and extraordinary organ. Hans Davidsson is the ideal performer for this task, and he plays the huge “North German Baroque Organ” of Gothenburg, Sweden. The complete organ works are recorded here in three volumes totaling seven compact discs.

What is Mean-tone Temperament?
Program Notes


Dieterich Buxtehude and His Organ Music
Diderich “Hansen” Buxtehude (1637–1707) was born in Denmark, and was active as an organist, composer, and cultural entrepreneur in Denmark and Sweden as well as in Germany where he became known as Dieterich Buxtehude. His father, Johannes (Hans) Buxtehude, who started his career as organist in Helsingborg but soon moved to Helsingør, taught Dieterich the foundations of organ playing and introduced him to Johan Lorentz, Jr., the famous organist at St. Nicolai in Copenhagen. It is possible that Dieterich studied with Lorentz or that he was sent to Franz Tunder in Lübeck or Heinrich Scheidemann or, perhaps, Matthias Weckman in Hamburg (although we have no evidence for this). In 1657, he became organist in St. Mary’s church in Helsingborg and, in 1660, he assumed the same responsibility at St. Mary’s in Helsingør. When Franz Tunder died on the 5th of November 1667, the attractive position at St. Mary’s in Lübeck became vacant. In April of 1668, Buxtehude succeeded Tunder there and was formally appointed organist and Werkmeister. This prestigious position in the significant Hanseatic League city of Lübeck became the primary arena for his activities as organist, composer, chief administrator, and cultural entrepreneur for the next forty years.

Buxtehude continued Tunder’s concerts for the opening of the stock market, and further developed them into a series of “Abendmusiken” that occurred after the Vespers on the last two Sundays of Trinity and the second, third, and fourth Sundays of Advent. These soon- famous “Abendmusiken” were directed from the large organ. With its six surrounding balconies it could accommodate about forty singers and musicians, which presented an amazing visual effect and created a magnificent acoustical and symbolic representation of the “Macrocosm,” the music of the heavenly choirs and the medieval concept of the harmony of the spheres. The large ensemble performed new music by Buxtehude and other important composers in the Italian-German concerto or multi-choral style. Like Matthias Weckman with his Collegium Musicum in Hamburg (1660-1674), Buxtehude developed a significant forum for the performance of new music, previously reserved for relatively small audiences at courts, and created a new public function and demand for this representative music in the core of the Hanseatic city culture. The many manuscripts of his music, of central German to Scandinavian origin, bear witness to the Abendmusiken’s significant influence. The collection is the largest body of organ, vocal and instrumental music of any musician active in Northern Europe in the seventeenth century. Truly a musicus perfectus, Buxtehude composed vocal, instrumental, and keyboard music of all categories, and in his music we find such a variety of styles and genres that we must inevitably approach his work from a general cultural perspective; the organ music, in particular, must be viewed through the lens of the monumental organs of the cities of the Hanseatic League.

Buxtehude’s Organ Music and Its Context

The large city organs were important symbols of the prosperity and power of the free Hanseatic cities, but they were also symbols of the presence of the Macrocosm in the daily life of the citizens. The organs were a symbol of the congregation and of Christian life as a whole, and even the Creation itself, all of which can be seen in their allegorical use as a subject for sermons and other writings of the period. In the same vein, the organs’ pure major thirds of the triads stood as metaphors for the Holy Trinity. The Trinitas Harmonica was an integral part of this concept, and made mean-tone temperament irreplaceable. The Organo Pleno could also be seen as a representation of the harmony of the heavenly choirs. During the seventeenth century, organbuilders also began to develop the concept that the organ should encompass all musical instruments in itself. Organbuilders like Esaias Compenius, Gottfried Fritzsche, and Friederich Stellwagen developed new stops that resembled the sounds of the human-scale world of music, called Musica Mundana, an acoustical microcosm, creating an almost infinite number of choices of consort-registrations. In Buxtehude’s organ music, and in the city organs, the seventeenth-century Northern European concepts of the sacred and the secular, the Macrocosm and the Microcosm, come together, juxtaposing and often integrating new and old perspectives.

Buxtehude’s free works comprise all the forms that were part of the Toccata tradition according to Johann Mattheson: “Intonazioni, Arpeggi, senza e con battuta, Arioso, Adagio, Passagi, Fughe, Fantasie, Ciacone, Capricci & c.” The angels and the statue of King David on the Lübeck Dom organ, as well as the elaborately carved wings on the sides of the pedal towers and the Rückpositiv, created the illusion that the organ is a baroque stage-set, extending the instrument into the space of the church beyond the confines of the instrument case. These visual sculptures have an aural correspondence in the different forms and figurations that belonged to the Toccata tradition: mimicking all of the personalities represented by typical actors of a baroque drama, the organist could render characters with different musical Affekts using the broad range and variety of combinations of registers.

In Buxtehude’s chorale fantasias, the organ case became an elaborate pulpit for a musical exegesis from the heavenly organist himself; in the North German tradition, the organist was sometimes called the “organ preacher.” In the small-scale organ chorales, where words were specifically and directly related to tones, a miniature style developed reflecting the aesthetic preference for arias from the new French Opera and corresponding to the small format of the pietistic songs of every-day life. The organ became the voice of the individual organist reflecting on one of the hymn verses through a simple musical meditation. Buxtehude’s chorale works comprise all categories from elaborated chorale fantasia to simple organ chorales, a prismatic reflection of the focal point of seventeenth-century sacred music: the hymn. Franz Tunder and Buxtehude both integrated these hymns in their cantatas and sacred concertos. In the tonal design of his instruments, Arp Schnitger provided powerful and fundamental reeds for the bass, and large, brilliant mixtures that were required for the accompaniment of congregational singing. Now all voices of the citizens were not only able but expected to sing with the church choirs, instrumentalists, and the heavenly choirs in the hymns and songs in their own native language. These monuments –material and non-material artifacts, music and instruments– witnessed the culmination of a new, dynamic and somewhat mannered style; a style that reflected the gradual emancipation from medieval ways to modern ones generated by the Enlightenment. Toward the end of his career, Buxtehude closely imitated Schnitger’s work when he built a new organ of this kind for the Lübeck Dom (1699).

Buxtehude and the Mean-tone Organ

What did Buxtehude experience and what music was generated when he visited these large new organs of his time? He must have tremendously enjoyed the new Schnitger organ in the Lübeck Dom, and played it rather frequently. Already in 1687, he played and admired the largest organ Schnitger ever built, the four-manual organ in Hamburg Nicolai, and he most likely also played and enjoyed the second four-manual organ that Schnitger built a few years later in Hamburg Jacobi (although we have no historical evidence of that). The encounter between a superb musician and a high-quality instrument of the same culture generates an unpredictable and exciting interaction and symbiosis. Some of Buxtehude’s compositional language patterns were probably enhanced and new ideas must certainly have developed in these encounters.

Although the size and character of these instruments varied, they all shared the same temperament, mean-tone temperament, which generates colorful tension through constant contrast between dissonance and consonance, and relaxation through the harmony of the pure major thirds in all common chords, reflecting the heavenly harmony. Mean-tone temperament is probably the single most important factor for the sound, and for the successful presentation of affect and contrast in this music. The purpose of this recording project is to explore the encounter between Buxtehude’s organ music and the North German Baroque Organ in Örgryte nya kyrka in Göteborg, the largest four-manual organ in Schnitger-style built in our time and the only four-manual instrument in this style, antique or modern, tuned in quarter-comma mean-tone temperament. In this first recording of the complete organ works on a large mean-tone organ, the known information about performance practice has been applied, but the encounter with the music and the instrument inevitably generated new perspectives, and led to an expansion of the frame for performance decisions and called for new aspects of “orchestration” and rhetorical rendering. Although it would have been fascinating to share the experience of the audience when Buxtehude played the Schnitger organs, the purpose of this recording is to create an interpretation of his music in our time, based on the same cultural patterns that generated Buxtehude’s organ art. In the liner notes, I aim to clarify what the objective and subjective aspects of this process were. The unique and superb quality of the ULSI recording technique, mastered by the recording engineer and ULSI inventor, Erik Sikkema, was a significant reason for this project. The ULSI technique makes it possible to experience the color and character of the whole frequency spectra of organ sound with an actual sense of the room and the location of the sounding sources.

The Organ Works and Mean-tone Temperament

Buxtehude’s organ landscape was in quarter-comma mean tone. Modification of mean tone, either systematical or of practical nature with compromise notes, was, if and when applied, an exception to the general practice. Because of the sustained nature of the organ sound and the expectation of stark contrast between consonance and dissonance, the mean-tone temperament with pure major thirds was preferred. It was a prerequisite for pure harmonic intonation in ensemble music, in which the large organs were frequently used as continuo instruments, and, despite contemporary theoretical discussions to the contrary, it was time-consuming and cost-prohibitive to apply these new temperaments to organs. Thus, it is clear that Buxtehude’s musical language developed within the realm of mean-tone temperament and that this temperament was standard when he played the organs. Nevertheless, it is a fact that a few of Buxtehude’s free organ works (BuxWV 141; BuxWV 142; BuxWV 149; BuxWV 151) are hardly playable in the keys in which they are preserved. Indeed, the free works of E minor, A minor, and G minor clearly benefit from the access to a d-sharp or a-flat instead of an e-flat or g-sharp (or instead of subsemitones, compromise notes for e-flat and g-sharp). There are several ways for the performer to diminish the harshness of impure harmony and/or dissonance, for example to shorten the length of dissonant notes or to add ornaments that hide them, or to adjust the registration from fuller registrations, for example Pleno, to solely Principal sound. However, the discrepancy between the temperament and a portion of the preserved works presents a problem that seems to be hard to solve. The notated versions may have been considered merely music for the eyes, or perhaps played on stringed keyboard instruments that more easily could be retuned. It was also foreign to the baroque era that a work of music existed as an absolute work in a completed form and carried with it the expectation that all notes should be possible to render exactly the way they are notated. The fact is that no organ works are preserved in autographs, and many compositions appear in somewhat different versions in different manuscripts. It is even documented that pieces surviving in keys like F-sharp minor were given to students to practice transposition.

We probably ought to take the baroque approach to this question: that the notated versions represent different versions of a work as a concept in evolution, and that it was perhaps never meant to be completed and final in a modern sense, but rather continuously developing and open for adjustments generated by the context and practical conditions. For this recording project, I have taken this approach, and searched various ways to play the problematic works on a mean-tone organ. In most cases, I decided to play the works in the keys given of the manuscripts, and, mostly, with the use of the subsemitones (d-sharp, a-flat and a-sharp), and in a few cases I transposed the compositions to suitable keys. In terms of the different readings of the manuscripts, I have generally followed Michael Belotti’s editorial recommendations in the Broude edition, but in a few cases I have developed my own adjustments.

The Italian Style and Buxtehude’s Music as Drama

In 1655, Mattias Weckman was unanimously appointed city organist in St Jacobi in Hamburg. The employment did not only bring a highly qualified organist to Hamburg, but also, and perhaps more importantly, somebody who had mastered the new Italian and “emotional” style of vocal and instrumental music and could establish and educate a Collegium Musicum to perform all the contemporary music in the city. Although Weckman, who had worked with an orchestra of Italian musicians in Dresden and who who had learned the Italian keyboard style directly from the Viennese and Imperial court organist, Johann Jakob Froberger, was the first city organist in the north to integrate the new language in the music culture, the Italian style was studied and adopted everywhere. Buxtehude continued this development with the “Abenmusiken” at St. Mary’s in Lübeck.

In 1706, Martin Heinrich Fuhrmann compared Buxtehude’s toccatas with those of Frescobaldi, and he stated: “thus, this German Italianizes and; indeed he runs many miles ahead.” Indeed, in Buxtehude’s toccatas and free works we encounter an unparalleled North European and late-Baroque equivalent to the master works of Frescobaldi. The fact that the earliest source of his work–emanating from Dresden (today known as the E.B. Codex or Lowell Mason Codex at Yale University, New Haven)—includes a rather large number of his works among significant pieces by, for example Frescobaldi (incorrectly attributed to Poglietti), Pasquini, Kerll, and Pachelbel, shows that already at this time these compositions were known and recognized as masterpieces of the Italian-German keyboard genre. In this project, I have carefully tried to identify the Italian style in Buxtehude’s free works and explored various ways to render them, for example in accordance with Frescobaldi’s performance recommendations.

The purpose of the secconda prattica—the Madrigal style and its keyboard representation, the toccata—was to render musical representations of human emotions, called Affekts. The only representative of this new style that was accepted in the frame of the liturgy was the “elevation toccata,” which used elements of the durezze e ligature style to present the Affekt of suffering and death, and in this context the death of Christ on the Cross. During the second-half of the seventeenth century, the rendering of Affekts became an increasingly important musical element, and opera music became the new musical form. Johann Kuhnau’s “Biblische Sonaten” were created with the purpose of providing keyboardists with examples and exercises of Affekts music. The connection to a well-known biblical drama or other literary references provided the inspiration for the projection of Affekts, which in the case of Kuhnau’s “Sonaten” even presented a drama and a complete story-line. Battles and pastorals are general examples and categories of Affekt music. Although stories and images of various kinds were only occasionally defined and described, a successful performance was always expected to project and communicate Affekts and emotions.

During the twentieth century, the main focus on baroque music was on structure, polyphony and other abstract qualities and the aspects of rhetoric and natural philosophy, integral elements of the paradigm of the German baroque, were problematic to apply in analysis and performance. In this project, I have tried to add this dimension to the process and in the performance searched for a rhetorical shaping of the contrasting Affekts that can be detected in the multi-sectional form, and rendered with constant change of articulation, touch, shape, flow and direction, mostly hardly noticeable, sometimes dramatic and perhaps exciting.

Also in this respect, the mean-tone temperament, regardless of registration and sound, evokes and unleashes in the performer a new degree of sensitivity to the inherent expressivity of the texture, that irresistibly demands attention and influences rhetorical shaping and musical timing. A heightened sense of presence and connection to the sound is enhanced by the somewhat unpredictable behavior of the flow of air provided from treading the bellows, shaped through the sensitive action and transferred to the dynamically-balanced pipes of the North German Baroque Organ in Göteborg. In this way, the encounter of Buxtehude’s organ music and the mean-tone organ in Örgryte nya kyrka was truly demanding and inspirational, and the purpose of this recording is to share that living experience.

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