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 may have been written.
Today’s brief cantata Kommst du, Licht der Heiden, dates from around 1681 and is one of a handful of pieces that Buxtehude composed specifically for Advent. The piece calls for a rather unusual combination of soloists, two treble voices and a bass, accompanied by a quintet of strings and organ.
The opening ‘Sonata’ is set in three short contrasting sections representing, alternately, the contemplative nature of the season and the excitement of the imminent birth of Jesus. Vocally, the piece is essentially a set of charming pastoral variations, each verse separated by an instrumental interlude. Only in the fifth and final verse does the tone become livelier and more celebratory.