Buxtehude And His Circle
- The musical environment in Copenhagen and North-Germany at the time of Dietrich Buxtehude.

By Paul Hillier

The Circle

The idea behind this program has been to give a picture of the musical environment around Buxtehude - his teachers, friends, and contemporaries who had influence on his musical development. Buxtehude himself became an institution in the North-German baroque. The fact that both J.S. Bach and G.F. Händel were among his visitors in Lübeck suggests how important a figure he had become at the high point of his career and how strong his influence was on the following generation of composers.

The circle around Buxtehude is a circle of time, space, and personal relationships. In this program Copenhagen has been chosen as the geographical center of the circle. All the composers included have spent shorter or longer parts of their working life in Copenhagen - as well as in the North-German cities of Hamburg and Lübeck - either before or at the same period as Buxtehude. Composers of North-German origin but with a network stretching from Rome in the south, represented by Kaspar Förster, to Stockholm and Gothenburg in Sweden in the north, represented by Christian Geist.

At first sight, it may seem that these composers had very little to do with each other - partly because very little is actually known about them - but when one looks closer into it, a pattern of friendships, teacher-pupil and family relations comes to sight: Carissimi was the teacher of Förster, who was most likely the teacher of Buxtehude, who was the teacher of Nicolaus Bruhns, whos father, Paul Bruhns, was a pupil of Frans Tunder whos daughter Dietrich Buxtehude married, etc…

This is the closest and most direct circle to make around Buxtehude – another greater circle could also have been made, including Schütz, Weckmann, Monteverdi, Carissimi, Bach, and Händel, who were all more indirectly connected to Buxtehude.

The Italian Connection

One of the characteristics of Buxtehude’s vocal music is the strong influence of the Italian cantata. Italy was the center of arts and music in the baroque era and the style had influence all over Europe. But the source of Buxtehude’s Italian influence is probably to be found in Copenhagen. Buxtehude grew up in Elsinore and studied in Copenhagen, very likely with Kaspar Förster (1616 – 1673). Förster was a pupil Carissimi and spent two periods - each of five years - in Copenhagen at the court of King Frederik III. Between the two periods in Copenhagen he served in Venice as a Captain in the fifth Turkish War, for which he was made Knight of the Order of St. Marc. In 1660 he revisited Rome and performed under Carissimi as a bass singer in his ensemble.

Both the musicians and the musical style at the Danish court were mainly Italian, as was the fashion all over Europe in those years. Johann Mattheson mentions Förster’s visit to Hamburg in his book “Ehren-pforte”. Apart from describing the sound of Förster’s bass voice by comparing it to the sound of a trombone, he is very impressed by the level of the Italian singers that Förster had brought with him from the Danish court. This gives us an impression of the international environment and musical level in Copenhagen during the years of Buxtehude’s education.

The Father In Law

Very little is known about the youth of Franz Tunder (1614 – 1667), but we do know that  he studied in Copenhagen in 1632, possibly with the court Kapellmeister Melchior Borchgrevinck. In 1641 he became the organist of Marienkirche in Lübeck and six years later he assumed the job as administrator and treasurer of the church. As both administrator and organist Tunder bought instruments and scores for the church and created the base of the well established Kantorei that Buxtehude took over after Tunder’s death in 1667. Tunder did not only create the best possible conditions, he was also the founder of the Abendmusik concerts in Lübeck, which should later become the platform of Buxtehude’s musical performances. The concept of the Abendmusik – free church concerts paid for by for businessmen - was not Tunders idea though. They were already by then well established in several of the main cities in northern European such as Amsterdam, Hamburg, and Copenhagen. 

As was common practice in North-Germany at that time, Buxtehude was to marry the daughter of his predecessor, Anna Margarethe. It is said that G.F. Händel and Johann Mattheson were both offered to take over the Kantorei in Lübeck after Buxtehude, but having taken a closer look at his daughter, they both declined!

The Odd Man Out

Though a bit of an outsider, Christian Geist (1640 – 1711) still fits into the context of this circle. His is an almost exact contemporary to Buxtehude, worked under Buxtehude’s personal friend Gustav Dübens in Stockholm and spent the biggest part of his life in Copenhagen. He grew up in Germany, but after having been turned down as Kantor in Hamburg, Christian Geist moved to Copenhagen in 1669 where he joined the Danish Court Chapel as bass singer. Already by June 1670, he resigned from this position to join the Swedish Court Chapel under Gustav Düben, where he stayed until 1679. He then spent some years in the German church in Gothenburg, before returning to Copenhagen in 1684, where he took up the position of organist at several of the main churches. A document from 1686 gives evidence of his service as the organist at both Trinitatis kirke and Helligåndskirken and from 1689 he was the organist at Holmens Kirke. He remained in Copenhagen until his death in 1711 when he and his family died of the plague in Copenhagen.

The Favourite Pupil

Nicolaus Bruhns (1665 – 1697) is the most important of Buxtehude’s pupils. He was sent  to Lübeck as a young boy by his father who had been a pupil of Buxtehude’s predecessor in Lübeck: Franz Tunder. Nicolaus Bruhns soon became the favourite pupil of Buxtehude who taught him organ playing and composition and Buxtehude sent Bruhns out with the highest recommendations. He spent 3 years in Copenhagen working as a composer and virtuoso violinist and got very influenced by the Italian musicians who worked there. In 1689 he competed for – and won – the position as organist in his hometown Husum in Schleswig-Holstein, where he stayed until he died, only 32 years old.