An Imaginary Conversation between Buxtehude and Schnitger during the 1687 visit to Hamburg

Dieterich Buxtehude and Arp Schnitger:
The Visit to Hamburg in 1687

“Yes, after I meet with the church council next week you will be informed of when you can expect an invitation. I know you are very busy in the months to come, but I look forward to seeing you in Lübeck as soon as time and God allows! We have much to accomplish and to discuss, yes?”

The bright voice of the lively, middle-aged man turned to laughter. He energetically shook the hand of his somewhat taller and younger friend, entered the coach, turned around, waving and smiling warmly as he took his seat next to an elderly lady.

“So, you have visited with our young master organbuilder Arp Schnitger”, she said, not without curiosity, as she attempted to give some more space to her fellow passenger, who was attempting to maneuver a viola da gamba case between them.

“My name is Frau Schmidt, and I am the wife of one of the church elders at St. Nichola’s, the congregation where Mr. Schnitger has been building for the last five years. It will be the largest organ that ever was built in our city, perhaps even in the world! Did you see the magnificent façade? Did you hear some of the completed voices? I gather you’re a musician?”

“Indeed, I am,” he said with another laugh and another futile attempt to make the gamba take up less room in the cramped coach. “My name is Dieterich Buxtehude. I am Organist and Werkmeister in St. Marien in Lübeck, and indeed you are right, the new organ with its four manuals and pedal and sixty-seven stops is the largest organ in anywhere in Christendom.”

Suddenly, the coach started to move, and Mr. Buxtehude looked out through the window and waved a final farewell to his host.

“Well, I am glad that you did not bring the whole organ with you,” said Frau Schmidt, now beginning to chuckle herself.

As they traveled along the Gänsemarkt and northwest out of the city, Dieterich Buxtehude started to gather his thoughts. Since he left Lübeck last Monday, he had found much time to think, and he had learned even more in his four days in Hamburg. “The visit had been most valuable, and indeed inspiring. Not only stimulating visits to instruments, but pleasant music making at the home of my old friend and musical brother, Jan Adam Reincken with some of his other friends, and, of course, good food and fine French wine!”

Buxtehude had been relieved that the church council in Lübeck sent him to visit before the St. Nichola’s organ was finished. “You learn so much about the organ builder, his craft, philosophy, the quality of his business and his workers when you see the installation in progress,” he said almost to himself. “And most of the flue stops and some reeds were already playable.”

The new organ was clearly going to be a masterpiece. Mr. Schnitger had developed the concept brilliantly, and he and his team were completely capable of building this enormous instrument. Buxtehude was convinced that Hamburg and northern Germany had not seen an organbuilder of this potential and caliber since the days of Gottfried Fritzsche, ­ or perhaps Friedrich Stellwagen from Lübeck, who built the two marvelous organs in his own church, and worked on all the other organs in the city too. In fact, it was his late teacher Scheidemann who had brought Stellwagen to Hamburg to carry out the large rebuilding of the organ in St. Katharinen in the 1640s. “How much I enjoyed playing this beautiful organ during my apprentice years in Hamburg!” he smiled to himself, “and dreamed of once becoming the organist of a great instrument brought to life by this master. Well, for twenty years, I have had the good fortunate to play two of them!” Frau Schmidt, seeing her companion beginning to mumble asked a pointed question of her companion: “Herr Buxtehude, if your instruments are so grand, why are you considering a new organ? I follow music keenly, you will not lose me and we have much time before us.”

Buxtehude brightened and began to speak animatedly to his travelling companion. “At the time when I arrived in Lübeck, almost twenty years ago, the large organ in St Jacobi was substantially renovated by Joachim Richborn but since then nothing has been done. Now it is absolutely necessary to do something about the organs in Lübeck, not only in St Marien, but in several churches, and the Dom needed a new organ. And this time it my responsibility to see to it that the famous instruments of Lübeck will be revived and renewed by the best builder of our time. Mr. Schnitger already has an indisputable reputation as a very capable and gifted builder, as you well know. His instrument in Stade is already almost fifteen years old. He has substantial experience. The impression of the last three days of your new organ at St. Nicholas, and my time with the builder himself has convinced me that Arp Schnitger is the man for the organs in our city. I have made up my mind. I will bring him to Lübeck for a longer visit to examine and study all the organs of our city, and we will develop a plan that could be pursued with the representatives of the church and city councils.”

His entrepreneurial soul shivered with excitement. He sensed an unusual opportunity. However, also a considerable challenge... They needed a vision and a joint collaborative effort of a unique kind that had most likely not been undertaken in a long time.

“Would you like a piece of chocolate,” Frau Schmidt said awaking him from his second lapse into silence.

“Yes, thank you very much,” Buxtehude said with a gentle smile. And, as the conversation unfolded, his mind started to develop the scope and strategy for a long-term plan, an organ initiative that would again equip his city with well-working state-of the-art instruments.

—Hans Davidsson