On Buxtehude and his Harpsichord Works.




Dietrich Buxtehude.
(c.1637 – 1707)

Dietrich Buxtehude spent his childhood and early youth in Elsinore. His father, Johannes Buxtehude, in Elsinore called Hans Jensen Buxtehude, had come to this neighbourhood from Oldesloe in Holstein around 1639. Times were hard here during the later phase of the Thirty Years’ War, and many moved north. Johannes Buxtehude became organist at the Olai Church after having worked for a short period in Helsingborg, today in sweden.
Dietrich – or Diderik as he called himself in Elsinore – probably went to grammar school and was taught organ playing by his father at the same time. Nothing is known about his further education, but already at the age of 20 he was appointed organist at the Maria Church in Helsingborg, In 1660 he returned to Elsinore as organist at the German church in Elsinore, the Maria Church, an appointment for which he was well qualified, speaking German as well as Danish.

During the 1660’s he must have acquired a reputation as organist and composer, and in 1668 at the age of 30, he took up the position as organist at the Maria Church – the third Maria Church of his life - in the Hanseatic town of Lübeck. This was one of the most distinguished organist jobs in northern Europe, and judging by this and by his work there he was already an experienced composer at this time. He married – this was a condition for getting the post – his predecessor Franz Tunder’s daughter, Anna Margerethe.
He remained in this position until his death in 1707 as one of the most important composers of his age. Among his official duties were of course organ playing for religious ceremonies, but also the composition of cantatas for both singers and musicians. About 120 of these works are extant today. His “Abendmusiken” concerts, held in the afternoons of the five Sundays before Christmas, were well known at that time. His predecessor had started this tradition, but Buxtehude extended it considerably.

His music was famous at that age and was studied by the later composers of the baroque period. Many will have heard the story of J.S.Bach being granted 4 weeks leave to go to Lübeck in order to “learn a thing or two about his art”, and staying for almost three months.
Since printing was difficult, especially of works with many beams on the notes, and handwriting often more easily readable, only few of his works were printed during his lifetime, and so the knowledge of Buxtehude’s works is very much due to contemporary copying, among others by the circle around the Bach family. Unfortunately, the music, written for his “Abendmusiken” is no longer extant. Many other works may have been lost, and he has probably composed much more than the c. 275 works known today.


The Ryge Family Book.

In 1939 a considerable number of harpsichord works by Buxtehude were found in Nykobing Falster in a family book belonging to postmaster Ryge. This find was extremely fortunate, for the music was notated in German organ tablature, which to most people looks like a mysterious code or just some squiggle. One page of the manuscript is shown on the cover of this CD. But the organist Svend-Ove Møller in Nykobing, to whom the book was shown, identified the writing as music, mainly by Buxtehude. He contacted Emilius Bangert, the cathedral organist in Roskilde, who transcribed the music and published it in 1942. Today the family book is in the Royal Library in Copenhagen.

All these works were unknown apart from the suite in e-minor, BuxWV 236, which is also found in manuscript in the Thomas Ihre Collection in the University Library of Uppsala, and these works are almost all the harpsichord music by Buxtehude known today. It was well known that the music had existed, for Johann Mattheson writes in “Der vollkommene Capellmeister” that the harpsichord music forms an important part of Buxtehude’s work, but it was considered lost. It is not the composer himself who has notated the music – his hand is well known – but the diligent copyer is unknown. The book contains 17 suites and 6 variation works by Buxtehude. Besides, there are 2 suites by N.-A. Lebègue, which Bangert looked on and published as being by Buxtehude, music by Pachelbel and Reinken already known, as well as some single movements, some of which may be by Buxtehude.

It is not clear whether the Buxtehude works in the book are written during his time in Elsinore or after the appointment in Lübeck. It has been adduced, by Bangert among others, that the keys of the movements would indicate that they were written for an instrument in unequal temperament, which micht suggest an early date, but as stated by Finn Viderø this argument is rather thin, since different temperaments must have been in use alongside each other for a long time.


Buxtehude’s music is of high quality and characterized by great melodious ingenuity. Compared to Bach’s music the movements are generally shorter and less strictly worked out. On the other hand they show an ease of expression and much ingenuity, often they have a surprising turn which afterwards seems quite natural. The Ryge suites often have an atmosphere of cheerful and kind melancholy.

All the suites in the Ryge book are of the traditional German type with the movements allemande – courante – sarabande – gigue. The allemande movements can be considered the most important, very well worked out and well disposed, and from these the other movements spring, thus e.g. the courante may begin with material from the beginning of the allemande. These stylized dance suites carry French designations, being usually in the style of the French clavecinists characterized by broken chords (Stile Brisé) and polyphonic music in which the number of parts changes as required. These stylistic traits have their origin in lute music. Also, the movements have overlapping parts. When one part pauses the other will play, a phenomenon called complementary rhythmic.
Bangert says, mistakenly, that the above mentioned e-minor suite in Uppsala is written in German Lute tablature. This is a strange error since it is written in the same type of organ tablature as the pieces in the Ryge book. But this error may have resulted in this suite having been met with interest by lute players and guitarists. The lute player Walter Gerwig has recorded it, and the guitarist Julian Bream has published a transcription known by many guitarists and used by many guitarists as the basis of recordings. Many other guitar players, among these Erling Møldrup, have made transcriptions. It is a suite of great musical value, and its being known in two versions means that there are many possibilities of finding solutions to the problems of transcribing keyboard music for the guitar.

The 6 suites I have recorded on this CD are those best suited for the guitar out of Buxtehude’s 17. They can be played without changing the key and without many changes all together. Sometimes a part has to be moved an octave, but they can be played almost as on the sheet.

It has been a great experience to penetrate into such good music, and here I have had great and invaluable help from Viggo Mangor, who besides being an excellent producer is also an excellent lute player and well-informed about all relevant topics, from Cicero’s rhetorics to the writings of Johann Mattheson and the lute music of Silvius Leopold Weiss.

I am also very grateful for being allowed to use the Boholte Church in Køge for the recording.

Per Dybro Sørensen.

Translation: Anne Marie Dybro Sørensen