Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1708)

Dietrich Buxtehude (1637 – 1708) for many years held one of the most important church positions in Northern Germany, that of organist at the Marienkirche in Lübeck. He was a stupendous virtuoso (Bach’s 250-mile pilgrimage on foot to meet him and hear him play is legendary) and he is still perhaps best known for his compositions for the organ. He achieved some fame additionally for the establishment of his Sunday afternoon concert series called Abendmusiken held on the five successive weekends before Christmas and it is for these concerts that much of his brilliant vocal music was written. The chorale-cantata Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, O Herr is considered one of the finest compositions of its kind in the 17th century.  Buxtehude sets all three versus of the chorale with breathtaking imagination. The solo voices are accompanied frequently by organ alone, while the independent string parts support the chorus or provide commentary. The first verse is a simple unornamented rendition by the solo soprano accompanied by an arresting five-part string counterpoint. In the second verse the five solo singers predominate in a colorful set of variations. It is the third verse that contains some of the most extraordinary music. Listen for the wafting string tremolos during the description of the angels carrying the soul to the bosom of Abraham – or the ‘freeze-frame’ moment on the word ‘ruhn’ [rest]; the soloists hold long sustained notes over an undulating string accompaniment. From there, the piece accelerates and intensifies joyfully. The final Amen brings the piece to a brilliant and exuberant conclusion.

©Michael Beattie

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