An organic awakening at a Friday lunchtime at St Paul’s Cathedral

The Buxtehude Project at Saint Paul’s

Richard Apperley – organ

Dieterich Buxtehude’s works for the organ, from the Buxtehude catalogue, BuxWV 136-225

Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul

Friday 17 June, 12:45 pm

This was the fifth recital in the series of lunchtime recitals that are designed to cover Buxtehude’s works for the organ. Compared with the Bach family, remarkably little is known positively about Buxtehude, including the place and date of birth, though the best evidence is between 1637 and 1639 in Helsingborg (now in Sweden), a city a short distance to the north of Malmö on the Öresund, opposite Copenhagen. However, his father had lived in Helsingør (on the north-east tip of the island of Zealand in Denmark: in English it is Elsinore – see Hamlet). The only Buxtehude house is in Helsingør where Dietrich himself was organist at Saint Olaf’s church from 1660 to 1668, when he went to Lübeck, to the Marienkirche (St Mary’s).

And that’s where he made his name, becoming such an eminent organist that Bach felt it was worth walking the 400km from Arnstadt, in 1705, aged 19, to learn from Buxtehude.

Three years ago I spent a few days in Lübeck, explored the Marienkirche, failed to catch an organ recital but had very interesting conversations with assistants in the church, about Buxtehude, the church and the role of the notable Hanseatic town, and Free Imperial City; we also touched on the dreadful bombing of Lübeck by the RAF in 1942, some believe, partially, in retaliation for the Luftwaffe’s firebombing of Coventry in 1940. Anyway, the Marienkirche was among the major churches destroyed and the smashed remains of the bells are preserved where they fell to the floor below the belfry tower of the faithfully rebuilt church.

The Buxtehude catalogue lists 135 vocal works and 80 for organ as well as many other keyboard and chamber music compositions.

The programme sheet contained some interesting details. The keys of the works carefully adhered to the recent convention of indicating minor keys in lower case, the major keys, logically, in capitals, meaning there’s no need to stipulate major/minor. Most programme writers seem not to understand, writing ‘major’ or ‘minor’ as well as using caps or lower case; but here the usage was correct. I have not followed that practice, continuing the old style, writing ‘major’ and ‘minor’ with the keys in capital letters.

The Music
The first work in the recital was the Prelude (Praeludium) in F sharp minor, BuxVW 146. It had begun as I entered and I thought I was hearing Bach, for the music was rather grand and conspicuously elaborate, played for the most part on typical diapason stops. It also occurred to me that some might have found it unidiomatic, though I have no problem with hearing baroque music in fairly modern dress, on a big, powerful organ with a greater variety of registrations than existed on a 17th century instrument.

A Chorale fantasia: Te Deum laudamus (BuxVW 218), followed, in five parts, that were most attractively varied. In the Prelude a quite prominent theme was richly decorated harmonically and with ornaments of the period (I’m quite sure!); while the next section was the main thematic statement of the chorale itself, which I found substantial and probably, given another hearing, memorable. Each of the successive sections had its characteristics through varied registrations, tempi, dramatic shifts from one manual to another. If I’d had a feeling, from not very much previous experience of his music, that Buxtehude was a good deal less interesting than Bach, I had my mind changed on Friday. It certainly sounded much more of Bach’s time, even our own time, than German music of half a century earlier, composers like Schütz, Scheidt, Schein….

The Canzonas are among the pieces grouped in the catalogue as ‘free organ works’, that is, not connected with a chorale. BuxVW 169, in E minor, brought lighter registrations, sitting in the middle of the keyboard and keeping within the range of the human voice, as the title would seem to suggest. And the last piece in the programme, a Praeludium in D was well chosen to end the recital; light and almost dazzling in its spirit with a lot of fast decorative writing in a high register. I thought of its inspiration as the sun came through brilliant stained glass of a rose window at the west end of a great gothic nave.

The pieces in between were Chorale Preludes. Danket dem Herren (BuxWV 181) did indeed suggest someone offering warm thanks for some kindness, fairly succinct and sunny. The last two were also in the nature of thank you notes addressed to God; the first, BuxWV 194, Ich dank dir, lieber Herre was rather formidable in its arresting chordal opening and dense textures. Given the registrations chosen by Apperley, it came to sound much more of the 19th century, from France even, a bit opulent for Lutheran Germany just after the end of the terrible Thirty Years War.

But Ich dank dir schon durch deinen Sohn (BuxVW 195) began with considerable dignity, the words presumably dwelling on God’s gift of his son to rescue mankind from misbehavior, a process that’s taking longer than the credulous of the first century CE might have expected. There were slow, rambling, sonorous passages, enlivened by varied dynamics and registrations, often with the sun shining through.

I came away feeling that I should not have left so long my first immersion in the wonderful world of Buxtehude, at least his world as viewed through the imaginative and colourful eyes and ears of Richard Apperley. There is likely to be a Buxtehude reappearance on these pages, and I urge you to make space for a sampling, Friday lunchtimes. Anyway, grand and spacious churches are wonderful places to spend a while, even for an atheist.

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