A Trip to Hear Buxtehude

Toccata in Gm D. Buxtehude (1637/39-1707)

“Spirit of the Living God”


In the autumn of 1705, a 20 year-old Bach requested four weeks’ leave from his church in Arnstadt to travel to Lübeck and learn from the famous Dietrich Buxtehude (then 67 years old), organist of the Marienkirche. He made the 250-mile journey on foot, leaving for Lübeck in November and returning the following February (yikes! winter in northern Germany!). He was only supposed to be gone for a month, but stayed nearly four. Even though his cousin played in his absence, his employers were none too pleased. It further didn’t help matters that upon his return he started indulging in “improper playing”, making “curious variations in the hymns“ which “confused the congregation”. They also chided him for not directing the choir, even though there was a choir director whom they chided for visiting the ‘wine shop’ across the street during sermons (which in those days were an hour long). Bach moved to a more congenial post soon after.

We know little about Dietrich Buxtehude. He was born 1637/39 – we’re not sure because baptismal records in the three places regarded as most likely to have been his birthplace do not go back as far as the 1630s. He was born in what was then Denmark (now Sweden), and his father was also an organist. Dieterich was employed as organist first in Helsingborg (1657–1658), and then at Helsingør (1660–1668). Buxtehude’s last post, from 1668 until his death almost four decades later, was at the Marienkirche in Lübeck which had two organs, a large one for big services and a small one for devotionals and funerals. He succeeded Franz Tunder and married Tunder’s daughter Anna Margarethe in 1668 – it was not uncommon practice that a man marry the daughter of his predecessor. They had seven children — six of whom apparently survived him.

In 1673 Buxtehude reorganized a series of evening musical performances, founded by Tunder, known as Abendmusik (Evening Music), which attracted musicians from far and wide, and remained a feature of the church until 1810. In 1703, Handel and Mattheson both traveled to meet Buxtehude, who was by then elderly and ready to retire. He offered his position in Lübeck to Handel and Mattheson but stipulated that the new organist must marry his eldest daughter, Anna Margareta. Both Handel and Mattheson turned the offer down and left the day after their arrival.

We have no portrait of Buxtehude, and great swaths of his music have been lost.