Michael McCooe: Composer – Dietrich Buxtehude

Born in 1637, Dietrich Buxtehude was a Danish-German composer and organist. Leaving a significant legacy, he is today considered one of the greatest composers of the Baroque period.

Life and times

Dietrich Buxtehude grew up in Helsingborg, Denmark. As a child, Buxtehude was heavily influenced by his father, who was a Danish church organist. After studying music with his father, Buxtehude also became a church organist, starting from 1657. After moving to the free city of Lübeck, he became the organist at Marienkirche. At this time, Buxtehude established the annual ‘Abendmusik’ organ music and choral Christmas concerts, which then became a yearly tradition in Lübeck until the 19th Century.

Living in Lübeck, Buxtehude was afforded a considerable degree of latitude over his music career. During his life he wrote prolifically and he met many who would go on to become world-famous Baroque musicians, including Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel. After working as an organist in Lübeck for around 40 years, he passed away in 1707. Buxtehude’s music lay forgotten until many of his works were recovered in the 20th Century, although many more are still lost to history.

Musical legacy

Dietrich Buxtehude is now regarded as a master vocal and instrumental composer of the mid-Baroque period, who influenced many of those who came later, like Bach and Handel. Buxtehude’s most important compositions are considered to be those he wrote for the organ. This includes toccatas, preludes, fugues, chaconnes and chorale-based pieces. Meanwhile, he also created a passacaglia which many experts believe that Bach’s famous Passacaglia in C Minor was heavily influenced by.

The core of Buxtehude’s organ work is formed by his 19 organ Praeludie (Preludes), which are regarded as his most critical contributions to the 17th Century music landscape. They are sectional compositions which vacillate between strict counter point and free improvisation, so no two are alike. Idiomatic to the organ, these pieces were primarily written as fugues and made strong use of the pedal.

Despite the fact that he was never hired as a cantor, Dietrich Buxtehude also had a strong interest in vocal music. The majority of the 120 Buxtehude vocal works which survive were composed in the 1680s and they were mainly themed around the bible, hymnbooks, and medieval sacred poetry, all of which he treated either in their compact forms or in different combinations. Buxtehude also wrote harpsichord music in both suites and variation sets, but much of this has also been lost to history.

Influential figure

As far as mid-Baroque composers go, they don’t come more influential than Dietrich Buxtehude. Over his lifetime, he wrote instrumental and vocal compositions which were both imbued with a devout simplicity and expressions of spontaneous emotion, with radical variations. With this style, Buxtehude’s work gripped the imaginations of the future Baroque masters he met during his lifetime, like Bach. These effortlessly talented musicians built on Buxtehude’s foundations to construct the elaborate late Baroque compositions we associate with this phenomenal genre of music today.

You can listen to some of my favourite classics on my Michael McCooe SoundCloud profile, which is updated on a regular basis.