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ClassicsOnline Home » BUXTEHUDE: Vocal Music, Vol. 2
Dietrich Buxtehude was one of the chief figures in North German music of his time. Although he never held a position that required him to compose vocal music, he left over 120 vocal works featuring an extremely wide range of texts, scorings, genres, and compositional styles. This second volume of the Naxos re-issue edition of the complete vocal music recorded by Dacapo (Volume One is available on Naxos 8.557251) includes such masterpieces as Alles, was ihr tut, Buxtehude’s most popular cantata during his lifetime, and one of the finest examples of the late sacred concerto, the dramatic Fürwahr, er trug unsere Krankheit, an intense and expressive setting of the passion theme which is remarkable for its stark dynamic contrasts and rests.
By David Denton
Dietrich Buxtehude (1637–1707)
Vocal Music • 2
Although Buxtehude never held a position that required him to compose vocal music, he left over 120 vocal works in an extremely wide range of texts, scorings, genres, compositional styles, and length. Texts, almost entirely sacred, are found in four languages, and performing forces range from one voice with one instrument and continuo to nine voices with fifteen instruments and continuo, divided into six choirs. Few of these works can be considered liturgical music for the Lutheran church, which was in any event the responsibility of the cantor. They were probably performed under Buxtehude's direction from the large organ at St Mary's in Lübeck during the distribution of communion at the morning service, during vespers, or perhaps in concerts, such as the Abendmusiken.
Buxtehude inherited well-established traditions regarding the musical settings of the texts that he chose. German composers of the seventeenth century typically transformed biblical prose into sacred concertos and strophic poetry into songs or arias. If the poetry was a church hymn associated with a well-known melody, however, they usually incorporated this chorale melody into a sacred concerto.
The German sacred concerto, whether for few or many voices, was established early in the seventeenth century in the works of Praetorius, Schütz, Schein, and Scheidt. It was often described by theorists of the time as a piece in which vocalists and instrumentalists contend with one another, and indeed one of its most salient characteristics is the tossing of musical motives associated with a phrase of text from one performer to another. Its form is usually through-composed, consisting of a number of sections delineated by contrasting metre, texture, and perhaps scoring, each reflecting the nuances of its particular portion of the text.
The word "aria" is the only vocal genre designation that Buxtehude is known to have used himself. His aria texts always consist of strophic poetry, usually newly written, and their musical settings may be in purely strophic, strophic variation, or through-composed form. An instrumental ritornello usually articulates the divisions between strophes. In contrast to the concerto, the aria's texture tends to be more homophonic, its phrase structure more regular, and its style more unified, placing more attention on an overall affect than on single words.
Buxtehude's treatment of chorale melodies ranges from rather simple harmonizations with instrumental interjections to elaborate concerted settings. Chorale concertos differ from those composed to biblical texts in one important respect: it is normally the chorale melody rather than the phrase of text that generates the musical motives.
While these genres remained quite distinct earlier in the century, in the hands of Buxtehude and his contemporaries they began to merge. In Buxtehude's works, the meeting of concerto and aria occurred in two distinct ways. On the one hand he juxtaposed these genres as separate movements within a larger work, which we now call a cantata, retaining most of the stylistic features associated with each genre, including their different texts. On the other hand, he extended each single genre by bringing into one or more sections of a work stylistic attributes associated with the other, such as concertato instrumental interjections between the phrases of an aria or aria-like sections within a concerto.
The text of Das neugeborne Kindelein, BuxWV 13, published by Cyriacus Schneegaß in 1588, appeared in numerous seventeenth-century hymnals with various melodies, but Buxtehude disregarded them all and chose to set these four strophes as a through-composed aria for four voices and instruments. This piece offers an excellent example of Buxtehude's integration of elements from the concerto into the aria. Each strophe of the poem consists of four eight-syllable lines, and his setting of the first three lines of the first strophe totally reflects this poetic structure, as is the case throughout the aria "Dir, dir Höchster"in Alles, was ihr tut. After that, however, the regular phrases cease, and the fourth line is extended through contrapuntal interchange and repetition. One is still aware of the integrity of the poetic line, however, and the strophe is set off by a ritornello, as one expects of an aria. The concertato elements are much more pronounced in the second strophe, including a metre change within it, but the ritornello returns, this time in the dominant, to remind us that this is still an aria. Some regular phrases return in the third strophe, but numerous instrumental interjections assert the concerto's continued presence, as is the case with the fourth strophe, which follows in a new metre after a second ritornello. The great advantage of the through-composed concerto is its ability to reflect every nuance of the text; we see this, for example, in the strong contrasts drawn in the third strophe between the reconciliation and friendliness of God reflected in the adagio chords of the first line and the opposition to the devil shown in the sharp, quick, and repeated setting of the word "trotz" in the third. This hybrid work also has a more widely ranging tonal plan than is the case with most of Buxtehude's arias.
Der Herr ist mit mir, BuxWV 15, is one of Buxtehude's most homogeneous and accessible sacred concertos, intended perhaps, like Alles, was ihr tut, to appeal to a broad spectrum of the Lübeck citizenry. Its text comprises two psalm verses, each beginning with the same phrase, "Der Herr ist mit mir" (The Lord is with me), which Buxtehude set with a sharply profiled and frequently recurring rhythmic motive, first heard at the very beginning of the instrumental introduction. To this he juxtaposes the opposing phrase at the end of the first verse – "what can man do unto me?" – with strongly contrasting adagio chords. The second major section, corresponding to the second verse of the text, has a gentler character, prompted perhaps by the text "to help me"; it is in triple metre, which serves to soften the rhythm of the "Der Herr ist mit mir" motive, and this change in character is further underlined by an initial shift to the major mode. Throughout these two sections the text is the generating force and is clearly comprehensible; the texture is mainly homophonic, and there is little change in voicing. The music takes over in the concluding "Alleluia" section, however, a ciacona consisting of nineteen variations over a two-measure ostinato bass. Here Buxtehude introduces varied voicing, instrumental and vocal virtuosity, and counterpoint to bring the work to a brilliant conclusion.
The dramatic nature of Fürwahr, er trug unsere Krankheit, BuxWV 31, is apparent from the first measures of the opening Sinfonia, with its stark dynamic contrasts and abrupt rests. Two sections for solo voice carry the main burden of the text of this sacred concerto, the bass in concertato style with the full corpus of instruments and the soprano in a dramatic recitative accompanied by gambas, whose parts are marked "tremulo" for an especially expressive effect. Buxtehude dramatically renders the response of the community to Isaiah's suffering servant by lifting one line of text, "Yet we esteemed him as one who was afflicted…," and repeating it in rondo fashion and in ever increasing intensity, from duet, to trio, to the entire ensemble. The close imitative counterpoint of the tutti refrain and of the final phrase, "and with his wounds we are healed," contrasts strongly with the block homophony to the words "that we might have peace." This remarkable work, one of the finest examples of the late sacred concerto, is preserved in Buxtehude's only surviving autograph manuscript score in the Düben Collection at Uppsala. In its intense and expressive setting of the passion theme it is reminiscent of the cantata cycle Membra Jesu nostri, BuxWV 75, which Buxtehude dedicated to Gustav Düben in 1680.
Alles, was ihr tut, BuxWV 4, may have been Buxtehude's most popular vocal work during his lifetime, since it alone is preserved in three independent manuscripts, one copied in Lübeck under Buxtehude's supervision, one copied partially by his friend Gustav Düben at the Swedish royal court, and one at the ducal court of Holstein-Gottorf. It maintains that popularity today, due largely to its direct and ingratiating style. It is one of only four of Buxtehude's vocal works that combine three distinct stylistic types – the sacred concerto set to a biblical text, the aria with a strophic text, and the setting of a chorale text to its preexisting melody – into what we now call a cantata. The compilation of the text reflects the work ethic of the Lübeck business community, beginning with the admonition from Colossians to do everything in the name of Jesus and closing with the undertaking of the work to which God had destined [the citizen] in his vocation and class in society. The concerto at the beginning, "Alles, was ihr tut," opens in uncharacteristically homophonic style, followed by a more contrapuntal texture at the word "danket". The aria "Dir, dir Höchster" is not for solo voice, as one might expect, but for all four voices in strict homophony. Set to a poem by an unidentified author, perhaps even Buxtehude himself, its three strophes are articulated by a lively ritornello, with shorter instrumental interludes between phrases. The second biblical text, "Habe deine Lust", is set for bass solo in arioso style and introduces the closing chorale, strophes 6 and 7 of the hymn "Aus meines Herzens Grunde" by Georg Niege, with an anonymous sixteenth-century melody. Buxtehude set it in his most characteristic chorale style, homophonically with instrumental interludes separating each phrase, first for solo voice and then for chorus, drawing the individual into the community for a most satisfying conclusion.
Early in his career, Bruno Grusnick found an attractive anonymous setting of the Magnificat in the Düben Collection at Uppsala and published it as a work of Buxtehude in 1931, arguing that other works of Buxtehude were preserved anonymously at Uppsala. Many years later, while making an extensive study of the Düben Collection as a whole, he discovered that the manuscript source of this work had come from Central Germany, and thus could not have been composed by Buxtehude (see Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning 48 (1966): 148, note 153). In Georg Karstädt's catalogue of Buxtehude's works, it is listed among the doubtful works as BuxWV Anh. 1. In the meantime, however, several other editions of the work had appeared under Buxtehude's name, and many still believe it to have been composed by him, even though no evidence supports this claim. Its musical style is much less sophisticated than even the most straightforward of Buxtehude's authentic works; compare, for example, its opening ritornello with the ritornello of the aria in Alles, was ihr tut, BuxWV 4. Furthermore, although the Magnificat was regularly performed as part of Sunday vespers at St Mary's in Lübeck, these performances fell within the responsibilities of the cantor, and the choir library contained 36 settings of the Magnificat by German and Italian composers. Buxtehude had little reason to compose liturgical vocal music, but he left two magnificent organ settings, the Magnificat Primi Toni, BuxWV 203, and Te Deum, BuxWV 218.
Kerala Snyder, 2001
Sung texts and English translations are available at www.naxos.com/libretti/570494.htm
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BUXTEHUDE: Vocal Music, Vol. 2