Ahead of the Netherlands Bach Society’s live streamed concert on 31st August from the Utrecht Early Music Festival, we take a look at Bach and his relationship with Dietrich Buxtehude in this week's At Home Guide.

St Mary's Church in Lübeck, where Buxtehude was organist from 1668 to 1707
© Arnold Paul | Wikimedia Commons

1705. It’s autumn in northern Germany. A young composer sets out from the city of Arnstadt to make the gruelling journey on foot to Lübeck, almost 400 km to the north. His reason? To hear some music by an organist – a 68-year-old organist, in fact, who is nearing the end of his career. But this isn’t just any organist, and the steadfast walker isn’t just any young composer.

Dietrich Buxtehude may not be the most famous name in Baroque music in our present age, but during the late 17th century and early 18th centuries he was renowned throughout Germany. As organist at St Mary’s Church in Lübeck, he held one of the most coveted musical positions in the land. What’s more, due to the culturally liberal atmosphere of Lübeck – at that time a free imperial city that enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy – Buxtehude was afforded a number of freedoms that courtly composers were not. He travelled, taught and had time to develop his skills as a keyboard virtuoso, in addition to his official duties as town organist. With this artistic freedom grew his reputation, and the likes of Handel and Telemann travelled to Lübeck with the express purpose of visiting Buxtehude. His compositional output is dominated by choral works of varying forms (see this performance of the secular cantata “Fürwahr, er trug unsere Krankheit” for an example) and, of course, organ music. He also composed a smaller number of chamber works, only 14 of which survive (an example is his Trio Sonata in A minor, the last work in this performance by Pallade Musica).

Painting of Dietrich Buxtehude by Johannes Voorhout
© Wikimedia Commons

At the turn of the 18th century, Johann Sebastian Bach was a young composer and musician with a voracious appetite to learn from masters and hone his craft. At the age of 15, he completed a mammoth journey – most likely on foot – from Ohrdruf to Lüneburg to study at St Michael’s school. Lüneburg, with its vibrant musical scene, left the young Bach spoilt for choice, and he was regularly able to hear the music of virtuosos like his organ teacher Georg Böhm. However, when he took his first professional post as church organist in Arnstadt in 1703, Bach reached an impasse: he was the most accomplished musician in town. Who now could he learn from?

In October 1705, he applied to his superiors for permission to leave his post for a month to hear the music of Dietrich Buxtehude (“to comprehend one thing and another about his art”, as Bach put it). The older composer was due to give a series of concerts under the title of “Abendmusik” (evening music) on Sundays throughout Advent. They must have been a mouth-watering prospect. Large ensembles were required to play Buxtehude’s music, with one performance using multiple organs, several choirs, drums, trumpets and other brass instruments and a 25-strong violin section. It was an opportunity not to be missed. Later that month, Bach left his post in the hands of his assistant and set off on the 400 km journey to Lübeck.

Historians believe Bach likely took the Old Salt Route, a well-worn trade route through northern Germany that had been in use since medieval times. It was far more common for people to undertake long journeys by foot than it is now, but even so, the dedication of the 20-year-old composer is striking. Not much is known about exactly what happened when Bach arrived in Lübeck, but what is certain is that it was definitely worth the journey. He met Buxtehude and possibly played organ or violin in the Abendmusik concerts. Some historians speculate that Buxtehude may even have offered Bach his daughter’s hand in marriage, a deal that came along with his job as Lübeck organist (Handel had been offered this very same deal, but had refused). We also know that Bach made several manuscript copies of Buxtehude’s music and transported them all back to Arnstadt. It was certainly a fruitful trip for Bach. So fruitful, in fact, that he forgot to return on time. It was well into February by the time he was back at his post in Arnstadt, meaning that he had stretched his leave of absence by almost four months. The subsequent disciplinary meeting with the church authorities was just one contributory factor in Bach’s leaving to take up a new position in Mülhausen the following year.

The route from Arnstadt to Lübeck, similar to that which Bach may have walked
© Google Maps

The influence of Buxtehude on Bach was felt even before he left Arnstadt. On his return from Lübeck, he began accompanying the church hymns in new, more complex ways, extending and varying the phrases to the extent that the congregation were unsure of when to begin singing. Buxtehude’s organ preludes also strongly influenced the preludes, toccatas and fugues that Bach would go on to compose. Other parallels abound: Buxtehude’s set of 32 keyboard variations on “La Capricciosa” is said to have inspired Bach’s own Goldberg Variations (also a set of 32 variations in G major), and the influence of older composer’s surviving ostinato bass works can be seen in Bach’s organ passacaglia (BWV 582).

On the arduous return journey to Arnstadt in early 1706, Bach transported a number of manuscripts that he had made of Buxtehude’s music. The older composer died just a year later, and it is partly thanks to Bach that his music was preserved and disseminated. Now, Buxtehude is thought of as occupying a unique place in music history: alive during the time of Heinrich Schütz – the progenitor of Protestant Baroque music – but also in the time of Bach, its most popular exponent. History, then, has vindicated Bach in sacking off his job and making the pilgrimage to Buxtehude.