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FL 2 3063

Dietrich Buxtehude and the North German School

Album information

Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) was one of the most important composers of organ music before Johann Sebastian Bach. He was born in Denmark and considered himself a Dane, but spent the last 39 years of his life as organist of St. Mary’s Church in Lübeck, Germany, where he bacame arguably the most famous organist of his era. No story attests to his fame more than that of Bach walking hundreds of kilometers to hear this master play. And no composer is more appropriately featured in this recording of the Knox College Chapel organ, which, like Buxtehude, also has its roots both in Scandinavia and in Germany. The Knox College Chapel organ is modeled largely after an organ in the old Swedish factory town of Lövstabruk. In 1719, this town, which lies some 150 kilometers north of Stockholm, burned to the ground. The owner of the factory rebuilt the entire town, commissioning the foremost organ builder in Sweden, Johan Niclas Cahman, to build a new organ in the parish church. Cahman was a member of a long dynasty of organ builders originating in Germany. The splendid organ that resulted was similar to those that Buxtehude and the others on this recording would have known.

We do not know the repertory of the first organists at Lövstabruk. However, the works of Buxtehude, Scheidemann and Weckmann were all known in Sweden during that era. Thus this program, which displays the expressive and sonic possibilities of such an organ, is representative of works that might have been played at Lövstabruk.

We start with the Præambulum in G Major by Heinrich Scheidemann (c 1595-1663). Such a work was possibly used at the beginning of worship, and demonstrates the majesty of the early 17th-century north German organ. Played here on the full principal choruses of the coupled manual and ryggpositiw organs, the work is characteristic of its day in its succession of several imitative sections. A periodic return to the initial ascending motive gives unity to the work, which is punctuated by pedal entries, played here on the full pedal organ using the magnificent 16′ Basun and 8′ Trumpet.

The chorale variations on Ach wir armen Sünder by Matthias Weckmann (c 1619-1674) were played between congregational singing of the verses, in order to allow reflection on this penitential text. Although we do not know which part of the chorale text Weckmann was responding to, it is possible that in the first verse he refers to the “sin” in which we are “conceived and born,” with the melody heard here on the 8′ dulcian of the ryggpositiw, while the other voices quietly grieve with their expressive harmonies and chains of falling suspensions. In the second verse, the melody, played on the piquant sesquialtera of the ryggpositiw organ, is more florid, featuring large skips which could refer to Christ’s coming down to earth to save us. In the last verse, Weckmann uses Vorimitation, a typical technique of the period in which the chorale melody is heard in the accompanying voices before its entrance in the solo voice. The character of this verse is very different from the first, perhaps expressing the text, “Therefore we will always praise and thank Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”

Vesper services were held on Saturdays in 17th-century Hamburg, and Weckmann’s Magnificat verses in the second tone must resemble what he would have played during this service. The first verse, played here on full organ, with the Magnificat melody lined out on the manual 8′ Trumpet, expresses the character of the text: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” The second verse possibly refers to the text, “For He that is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name,” since a seventh note is added to the last chord, the perfect number seven representing the holiness of God. The third verse is full of dramatic dissonances which could refer to the text, “He has put down the mighty from their seat.” And the fourth verse, played here on full organ, probably introduces the concluding Gloria Patri, its triple-meter ending referring to the Trinity.

A prominent feautre of late 17th-century north German organ music was the “fantastic style,” or stylus phantasticus. The style is characterized by dramatic devices: arresting, highly virtuosic opening gestures; startling pauses and surprising dissonances; brilliant scales and flamboyant trills. The Præludium in C Major (BuxWV 137) of Dietrich Buxtehude is a superb example of this style. Like a good speech, the opening pedal solo announces the musical material of the entire work. The theme of the fugue which follows is derived from the pedal solo, as is the theme of the final section, a ciaccona, or triple-meter dance characterized by the constant repetition of the theme in the bass. The f# diminished chord just before the ciaccona is strikingly pungent in the fifth-comma meantone temperament of this organ, giving a taste of its impact on 17th-century listeners.

The two settings of chorale texts that follow exemplify the rhetorical richness of north German baroque organ music. The first is Buxtehude’s chorale prelude Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder (BuxWV 178). Buxtehude set this melody in the soprano, at first without adornment so that the chorale can be recognized, and then ornemented in the vocal style of the period, as if the emotional weight of this Lenten text is too much to express in plain notes. Each phrase, separated by pauses, is introduced by quiet Vorimitation in the accompanying voices. The 8′ Qwintadena in the ryggpositiw is featured as the solo voice in this performance.

The second chorale is Nun Lob, mein Seel, den Herren (BuxWV 213), a paraphrase of the 103rd Psalm. Like Weckmann’s Ach wir armen Sünder, this setting probably provided interludes between sung verses. The first verse, in a style inherited from Sweelinck, is a duo between the melody and a highly energetic second voice, played in this recording on the 8′ trumpet of the manual. The second verse is played on the ryggpositiw alone, and the third on full principal choruses and trumpet in the manual and ryggpositiw, with the melody played on the pedal reeds. This grand ending, partly in triple time, recalls the chorale variations on O Lamm Gottes unschuldig (BWV 656) by J.S. Bach, who was greatly influenced by this master.

Buxtehude’s Fugue in C Major (BuxWV 174) may be a fragment of a larger work. Although it is certainly effective in its extant form, its triple-meter dance rhythm and varying musical material resemble a typical final fugue and flourish in a stylus phantasticus praeludium. Perhaps the original work opened with a brilliant ascending pedal scale, to which this fugue could be referring in the ascending scales in its final bars, played in this performance in the pedals on the 8′ dulcian of the ryggpositiw.

We continue with two more chorale settings of Buxtehude. The first is a setting of the well-known Advent chorale Nun komm der Heiden Heiland (BuxWV 211). The highly ornemented melody is played on the ryggpositiw sesquialtera. The flourish at the conclusion of the work, typical of choral preludes of the period, may have been the model for the flourish at the end of J.S. Bach’s setting of the same chorale, BWV 659.

Next follows the chorale Puer natus in Bethlehem (BuxWV 217). In this Christmas chorale, Buxtehude treats the melody in a much more straightforward manner than he does in the introspective, prayerful Nun komm. The melody is played on the manual 8′ Rorfleut and 2′ Superoctawa, accompanied by the 8′ regal of the brustwerk, giving it an exotic pipe-like quality, as if to remind us of the “Kings of Sheba” bringing “incense, gold and myrrh.”

Buxtehude’s Toccata in G Major (BuxWV 165) is a rather different work than his Præludium in C Major. Much of its material revolves around arpeggiated chords, suggesting that it was conceived for a stringed keyboard instrument. Nonetheless, this piece works very successfully on the organ. As in the Præludium in C Major, the opening free section of this Toccata is followed by a fugue. The work ends with a series of variations set over a repeating bass.

Buxtehude’s Præludium in E Minor (BuxWV 143) on the other hand is very similar to the Præludium in C Major. It also opens with a pedal solo, which announces in its first three notes the motive that will be used in the fugues that follow. As is often typical of stylus phantasticus praeludia, the first fugue is in common time, followed by a free section and then a second fugue in triple meter, reminding us of the triple-meter ciaccona in the C-major Praeludium. The work ends with a series of dramatic outbursts and then a long flourish in E minor over a pedal point.

The setting of Martin Luther’s text Ach Gott vom Himmel, sieh darein by Johann Nicolaus Hanff (1665-1711) resembles Buxtehude chorale preludes with ornemented melodies in the soprano, such as Ach Herr mich armen Sünder and Nun komm der Heiden Heiland. But Hanff went further than Buxtehude in his use of imitation in the accompanying voices, as is clearly heard at the beginning of the work. Hanff’s symbolic and poetic interpretations of chorale texts may have influenced J.S. Bach. The text’s plea for strength and guidance in a world indifferent to God’s work, is clearly painted by the descending chromatic lines in the accompaniment, typical baroque figures for sorrow.

The chorale Vater unser im Himmelreich is Luther’s metrical version of the Lord’s Prayer. This setting by Georg Böhm (1661-1733) is more like an aria than a chorale prelude. The melody, freely expanded with echos, insertions and repetitions, is presented in the soprano voice, richly ornemented over a basso continuo. The inner voices are written out, but have an improvisatory nature, as if a skilled thoroughbass player is sensitively realizing a figured bass. With the melody heard in this performance on the ryggpositiw sesquialtera, it is easy to imagine this sung as a highly expressive opera aria of the early 18th century.

Nicolaus Bruhns (1665-1697) was a student of Buxtehude, and the long pedal solo at the beginning of his “little” Præludium in E minor reminds us Buxtehude’s praeludia on this recording. At the end of the first long pedal solo is a ravishing example of Italian durezze e ligature style, a series of slow moving dissonances and resolutions often incorporated into the organ music of the north German masters. The next section features echo effects, a device inherited from Sweelinck’s day, contrasting the manual with the much quieter brustwerk, muffled behind its shut doors. As in the other stylus phantasticus praeludia in this program, free sections alternate with fugues. The wealth of contrasting ideas gives us a glimpse of the improvisational élan of this master, who unfortunately left behind only four extant organ works.

Some forty-five years after the building of Lövstabruk, the Swedish crown prince, later King Gustav III, wrote to his mother that she “had seen nothing in Sweden, if she had not seen Lövstabruk.” It is safe to say, too, that one has heard no organ in Sweden, if one has not heard the organ at Lövstabruk. In this recording, the beauty of the north German organ, and the music that Buxtehude and others wrote for it, is brought again to life in the Knox College Chapel organ.

© John Sheridan

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Performer’s note It is difficult for me not to succomb to the extraordinary beauty of the music of the north German masters. These composers, active throughout the 17th century, gave to their music radiance and depth. The Knox College organ, with its straightforward coloring and resolutely nordic character, is perfectly suited for this repertoire.

The bellows of this organ can be activated either electrically or, as they were at the times, with foot levers. We have tried both mechanisms. If the electric motor ensured a certain stability in sound production, the resort to the ancient mechanism brought a more lively and unpredictable element to the organ wind. The inflexions that resulted added, it seemed to me, a certain motion to the sound of the full organ, perceptible during the pieces and, at times, on final chords. For the other works, I have favored the electric mechanism, in fear that the manual mechanism become too audible on the recording.

It is not rare, in Northern Germany, to discover great instruments in parish churches. The Knox College Chapel, owing to its dimensions, reproduces this phenomenon. Accordingly, we have avoided adding artificial reverberation that would have give the illusion of a large vessel. We chose instead to preserve the original purety of tone and resonance.

© Luc Beauséjour

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The organ at Knox College, University of Toronto
Hellmuth Woff Associés, Opus 33, 1991

Knox College, affiliated with the University of Toronto, is housed in a stone building built around 1915. The organ is on a new gallery of oak in the rear of the chapel. The organ of the Swedish master Johan Niclas Cahman is Lövstabruk was the model for the pipework, but an independant approach was taken for the case design, wich, as the chapel, is Gothic raher than baroque. A brustwerk, though not common in Cahman’s organs, is desirable for the repertoire of the north european masters. The short octave squares well with the “older” character of this keyboard division. The wind is raised by a pair of wedge bellows, which may be pumped with foot levers or used as reservoirs when operated with an electric blower. The front pipes are made from 83% tin, polished an thinned towards the top. The inside pipes are made in Cahman’s fashion, with an alloy which gives the pipes a silver-grey surface. Cahman’s mixtures have tierces, even a grosse-tierce and a grosse-quinte!

These may be cancelled, and the break pattern changes from octave breaks into fifth and fourth breaks when the stop is drawn at half-position. The organ is tuned in a modified fifth comma meantone temperament after the newly restored Schnittger organ in Norden, Germany. More information on the Knox College Organ can be found in the book “The Historical Organ in America,” published by the Westfield Center (Easthampton MA, 1992).

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Luc Beauséjour
AN 2 9879 Bach Krebs Abel – Peres et Fils: Musique du Cercle
AN 2 9879 Bach Krebs Abel – Peres et Fils: Musique du Cercle

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