Buxtehude: Praeludium in G minor, BuxWV 149

Dietrich Buxtehude (ca. 1637–1707) is so closely associated with the North German organ tradition that it comes as a bit of a shock to learn that his early career was spent in Denmark, and that he may well have been of Danish birth. (Our knowledge of his origins is sketchy, alas.) His lasting fame came with his appointment at age thirty as organist and administrator of the Marienkirche at Lübeck, which he made into a headquarters for German organ playing and where he matured into a deeply respected master to whom students came from far and wide.

In 1706 the twenty-one-year-old Bach made the long journey, apparently on foot, from Arnstadt to Lübeck, getting himself into hot water in the process with the Arnstadt authorities for having stayed “about four times as long” as his requested leave. Even if Bach wasn’t Buxtehude’s pupil per se, he always considered the older master to be a mentor, not only in the art of playing the organ, but as the ne plus ultra municipal music director whose competence covered not only all musical genres but also all aspects of a community’s musical life.

Buxtehude wrote about twenty some-odd organ Praeludia, each less a prelude as we might associate with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and more akin to Bach’s toccatas or fantasias. (A few are entitled Toccata, in fact.) As such, these are multi-sectional works that combine virtuoso passages with august fugues, chipper allegros with subdued largos, the whole stitched together by quasi-improvisational passages.

The Praeludium in G minor, BuxWV 149 provides a splendid example of the art that so inspired Bach, Handel, Mattheson, and just about every other worthy German organist. It begins with a toccata-like flurry before settling into a sober four-voice fugue that reserves the pedals for the fourth, or lowest, voice. The pedals really come into their own in the following Allegro with its almost nonstop foot-powered running notes punctuated by rhythmic chords in the manuals.

Another fugue follows, this time in a stately sarabande-like rhythm and extending far longer than its predecessor. That gradually gives way to figuration and passagework in the keyboards, bringing the whole to a decisive major-mode conclusion with a spray of decorative ornamentation.—Scott Foglesong

Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.

(June 2019)