Saturday, January 25, 2014

Buxtehude - Praeludium In G Minor BuxWV. 149

The oldest known type of musical instrument is the flute. Examples made from animal bone have been found in caves that were inhabited by early humans between 30,000 - 40,000 years ago. There is still much debate in the scientific community as to the exact dates, but there is not doubt that they were flutes as they had v-shaped mouthpieces and finger holes.

Taking a huge jump forward in history some 30,000 years (give or take)  to Greece in the 3rd century B.C.E., there is the first known example of an organ. This instrument was called the Hydraulis, (literally water organ in Greek) as it used wind pressure derived from water to sound the pipes. The Hydraulis was also the first instrument known to have a keyboard. So the pipe organ as we know it is an ancestor of the first flutes made from bone and the Hydraulis of ancient Greece.

Another jump forward in history to the 14th century sees further advancement in the pipe organ as now it has not only a keyboard and pipes, but a source of air pressure from bellows operated by humans. Organs at this time also had different sets of pipes, or ranks, that could be engaged with the keyboard in many combinations to create different sounds from the instrument.

By the time of J. S. Bach, organ playing had evolved into different schools, one of which was the Northern German school of organ playing. Musicologists have traced the beginnings of the North German school back to a Dutch composer and teacher, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, (1562 - 1656)  who had German students that carried the style back to Germany.  One of the most famous organ players and composers of the North German School was Dieterich Buxtehude (1637? - 1707) He was trained by his father who was also an organist, and eventually ended up in  Lübeck at the Marienkirche as organist and music director.
Jan Pieterzoon Sweelinck

Buxtehude enlarged the Abendmusik, a series of evening concerts performed in the church. This series began in 1641 and ended in 1810 and Buxtehude was the first composer to play the organ at these concerts. The businessmen of Lübeck paid for these concerts so they were free to the public.  Buxtehude's reputation was so great as a result of these concerts that Bach, Handel, Matteson and other composers of the time would travel to Lübeck to hear him play. The influence of Buxtehude on the next generation of composers was enormous.

Buxtehude is most well known for his organ music, but he wrote many vocal compositions, most of which are not thought to have survived. His ninteen Praeludium (preludes) for organ make up the core of his surviving organ works.  They are works that consist of sections within each piece, usually a mixture of free improvisation and counterpoint. There are no two preludes that are exactly the same in number of sections to them, and they are considered to be Buxtehude's most important contribution to the North German school.

The Praeludium In G Minor, BuxWV 149 is a work in five sections.

Section 1 -  A short toccatta opens the work and then an ostinato theme is played in the bass while a free improvisation is carried over it.
Section 2 -  A fugue for 4 voices.
Section 3 -  After the fugue runs its course, this section returns to toccatta-like free form.
Section 4 -  Another 4 voice fugue.
Section 5 -  This last free form section grows directly out of  the preceding fugue and the piece ends rather suddenly.

Buxtehunde is not considered an innovator. At the most he was a transitional composer that combined the North German school with influences from Italian music.  But he wrote music that showed great skill and surprising emotional appeal. He must have been exceptional in improvisation at a time when musicians were expected to be able to improvise, as the existing organ music shows. Much of it has an improvisatory sound to it.

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