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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 5 (1999) No. 1

Northern German Church Music in the Age of Buxtehude. By Geoffrey Webber. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. [vii, 236 pp. ISBN 0-19-816212-X. $69.]

Reviewed by David Yearsley*

1. Implications of the Title

2. Buxtehude and his Contemporaries

3. Essential Italianisms

4. Survey of an Age


1. Implications of the Title

1.1 Geoffrey Webber's book is not so much a general study of church music in Buxtehude's orbit, but rather of portions of the sacred vocal repertory from northern Germany in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. While he does discuss several printed sources, Webber focuses on the repertory which survives in the two greatest treasuries of northern German concerted music: the manuscript collection of the Stockholm Kapellmeister and friend of Buxtehude, Gustav Düben (it contains over 1300 sacred vocal works), and that of the Gottorf Kapellmeister, and later Wolfenbüttel Kantor, Georg Österreich (the earlier, sacred part of his collection runs to some 850 numbers). Somewhat arbitrarily, given his title, Webber does not include organ and instrumental works that discharged liturgical functions, nor does he discuss passions or occasional compositions associated with death and burial.

1.2 This is an informative, thoroughly researched, and carefully considered book, but its title raises a fundamental question: Is the later seventeenth century, a period marked by an extraordinary richness of musical life in the town churches and princely chapels of the Baltic region, properly thought of as the "Age of Buxtehude"? In Johann Mattheson's Grundlage einer Ehren-Pforte of 1740, the most important biographical source for seventeenth-century German musicians, Buxtehude barely appears. Buxtehude does not even rate his own entry in the book as the leading organist of his generation and the long-time artistic director of Lübeck's Abendmusik, entering only as a peripheral figure, a mere passerby of Mattheson's "triumphal arch": the great Buxtehude a tourist to the monument his presence should rightly have adorned. This in spite of the fact that Mattheson met Buxtehude in 1703 when he and Handel journeyed together by coach from Hamburg to reconnoiter the possibility of becoming his successor as organist at St. Mary's, Lübeck. In the Ehren-Pforte Buxtehude is presented merely as an "outstanding organist" with a daughter neither Handel nor Mattheson had any interest in marrying.(note 1) Mattheson says nothing about the Abendmusik, Buxtehude's considerable activities as a composer of vocal music, or his published sonatas for viola da gamba, violin, and continuo.

1.3 Who then among Buxtehude's contemporaries might have represented for Mattheson one of the leading northern Germans of the "Age"? A strong candidate would be Johann Valentin Meder, who was born in 1649 (twelve years after Buxtehude supposed birth year) and died in 1719 (twelve years after Buxtehude's death), and who, incidentally, sang under Buxtehude's direction from the organ loft of St. Mary's Lübeck as a guest soloist on the feast of the Visitation of Mary in 1674.(note 2) Whereas Buxtehude was not given an entry in the Ehren-Pforte, Meder's extends to five pages. Here was a musician, at least as he is presented by Mattheson, who learned Italian as a boy, and whose fluency in the language made him particularly suited to understanding and promoting the vocal music flooding north from Italy.(note 3) As Kapellmeister in Danzig and later Riga, Meder received a steady supply of the newest Roman cantatas directly from Italy, and also performed sacred vocal works by leading natives, such as the opera composer Reinhard Keiser. Meder's commitment to modern music was unswerving, a stance not without its repercussions in conservative Lutheran Danzig, where he was dismissed from his post as Director of Music for mounting a production of his opera Die wiederverehligte Coelia in 1698, in spite of prohibitions by the town council. And, most important for Mattheson, Meder's aesthetic concerns were oriented towards the listener, rather than preoccupied with the rarefied principles of overly complex music; he was, through the entire course of his professional careerand in this respect he distinguished himself, according to Mattheson, from the vast majority of his contemporaries—eager to remain current, to adapt to changing musical tastes. Meder was, in a word, a progressive.

1.4 Strangely, but not coincidentally, the leading figure of Webber's "Age of Buxtehude" seems to be Meder or perhaps the Stockholm organist Christian Geist. Their apotheosis is foreshadowed earlier in the book, yet it is only in the short conclusion, indeed on the penultimate page of the text, that Meder and Geist finally emerge to claim their place ahead of Buxtehude along the time-line of stylistic progress. In response to a perceived tendency to elevate Buxtehude at the expense of other seventeenth-century composers, Webber argues that: "Although [Buxtehude's] organ music can certainly be hailed as the finest achievement amongst the organ music of his contemporaries, his church music does not stand out in the same way. Moreover, the style of his church music shows both modern and conservative traits." The music of Geist and Meder, on the other hand, "is arguably more thoroughly Italianate"—and therefore more up-to-date—"in style than Buxtehude's, and contains many works whose expressive quality and technical accomplishment rival the best of Buxtehude's output" (p. 196). Indeed, in their constant pursuit of the modern there is a marked affinity between Webber and his more flamboyant musicological predecessor, Mattheson. Though the author presumably did not intend it, then, the title seems gently ironic, as if the Age of Buxtehude were fitted with quotations to suggest that the period did not belong to the figure who is today most famous.

2. Buxtehude and his Contemporaries

2.1 Webber's avowed purpose is to bring to our attention the rich and largely unheard music of Buxtehude's contemporaries, as well as that of the generations that immediately preceded and succeeded his own. Webber's goal is "not to denigrate Buxtehude's achievement" (p. 196), but to reclaim for gifted composers like Geist and Meder their proper position alongside—indeed, in terms of modernity, slightly ahead of—the figure who has, since the Bach revival, overshadowed them almost completely. But this reviewer hesistates to support the adoption of the historiographical outlook that brought about the very situation Webber is now trying to bring back into balance. It is precisely as a result of this developmental approach to the writing of music history that composers whose work did not "lead" to the fully matured Baroque cantata (i.e. the music of J. S. Bach) were relegated to the margins in the first place. The music found in the collections in which Buxtehude’s vocal works survive—those of Düben and Österreich—is largely unavailable in modern editions and is too rarely performed; men such as Kaspar Förster, Balthasar Erben, Geist, and Meder were neglected because they were thought to stand outside the stylistic advance leading to Bach.

2.2 Webber himself takes pains to point out the dangers of viewing the music of Buxtehude and his contemporaries as a proto-Bachian repertory, and his study is a valuable corrective in this regard. By bringing his critical insights and enthusiasm to the less well-known seventeenth-century masters, Webber has done us a valuable service, arguing for the importance and beauty of a body of music whose relative marginalization has deprived our present musical culture.Recordings of music from the Düben collection have also contributed greatly to the important task of introducing us to a portion, if only a very small one, of this repertory.

2.3 In re-positioning Buxtehude on the historical continuum, Webber turns for support to Søren Sørensen, quoting his conclusion that "Buxtehude's cantata style is to be seen rather as the end-phase of a stylistic development (the culmination of the Carissimi style in the northern German school) than—as up to now—as the prototype of the high Baroque cantata" (p. 82). Unlike Meder, Webber's Buxtehude has in his last years let the "baton [be taken] up by the next generation of composers" (p. 196); in leading Buxtehude scholar Kerala Snyder's view, however, the aging Lübeck organist is following the latest trends with the help of his assistant and later successor at St. Mary's, J. C. Schieferdecker, an accompanist at the Hamburg opera.(note 4) In Webber's portrayal, Buxtehude seems to be falling behind the times, although after the turn of the century some evidence suggests that he seems to have acquired the Italian taste for unison string writing. Webber notes that none of Buxtehude's music from the 1690s and first decade of the eighteenth century survives to verify either scholar's claim. Placing Buxtehude in his stylistic context is one of the most valuable contributions of the book, but it is perhaps unnecessary, indeed counter-productive, to retain the strongly teleological model of history, which allocates scholarly attentions according to notions of growth and development.

2.4 Consider Webber's rather cursory treatment of Buxtehude's greatest student, Nicolaus Bruhns, who, after serving as organist in Copenhagen and in Husum, died in 1695 at the age of thirty-two. In Webber's account, Bruhns's vocal music remained "close in style and content" to that of his teacher (p. 84). Although Webber cites Bruhns's use of Italianate virtuoso violin writing and modern harmonic sequences based on the circle of fifths, he remains in this account an apparently conservative, if inspired, composer writing in the style of his teacher, a mode of expression that had, as Webber tells us, already culminated. While Bruhns lags behind (in Webber's stylistic narrative), it is his colleagues in Wolfenbüttel, Georg Österreich and Georg Schürmann, who push things forward, producing the first known formally separated recitative and aria pair (the normative configuration of the eighteenth-century cantata) and the first known da capo aria in northern Germany. Such critical formulations not only privilege form over other perhaps equally important characteristics, for example the harmonic richness of Bruhns's music, but they frequently neglect the subtleties of individual pieces in favor of placing them into a generalized view of musical development. Bruhns's early death did not give him a chance to prove whether or not he would have adapted to these turn-of-the-century trends; and, of course, such judgments are tenuous at best, since the musical sources that remain can offer us only the barest picture of the production of individual composers. Compare Webber's interpretation with that of Fritz Stein, who edited Bruhns's vocal music in the 1930s and who saw the composer as one of "those masters of the second half of the seventeenth century ... [who] sought to establish the architectonic structure of the early cantata ... and thereby paved the way to the madrigal-like cantata... and so to J.S. Bach."(note 5) Both interpretations are weakened by their reliance on notions of musical progress, even if Webber's is based on a broader and deeper understanding of the repertory, and is less ambitious in its long-range claims.

3. Essential Italianisms

3.1 In fairness, it should be pointed out that one of Webber's explicit aims is to focus his study more closely on the Italian influence in northern German music during the later part of the seventeenth century, since scholarly attention has in his view been concentrated on the specifically "German" aspects of the repertory, especially chorale and passion settings, which later found such powerful expression in the works of J. S. Bach.

3.2 The Italian style is an essentializing factor in Webber's assessment of what constitutes modern features. Although, as Webber so persuasively shows, Italian influence was vitally important in the period, Frenchness could also be a signifier of modernity, particularly when one looks beyond the collections of Düben and Österreich, to the Hamburg opera, which performed a number of French works in the years after it opened in 1678, among them Lully's opera Acis and Galatea in 1689. Webber himself describes the recruitment of French musicians in ducal chapels in the Baltic region, and notes, if only in passing, the French harmonic inflections found frequently in the northern German repertory. The marvelous chain of French suspensions—already used by other composers—that recurs throughout Bruhns's Hemmt eure Tränenflut might well have been heard as equally modern, and indeed more refined, than say, the vigorous unison string writing of the Italian style. As a reader and listener I am less concerned as to whether aspects of Bruhn's style are progressive or conservative than in the ways they define his personal and highly expressive style.

3.3 Johann Philipp Förtsch, one of Georg Österreich's teachers and a predecessor at the Gottorf court, is brushed aside simply because his "works tend towards the conservative," a disability Webber "explain[s] away by the fact that [Förtsch] had many other interests besides music" (p. 70). We never see any of Förtsch's music in the book, presumably because it does not manifest sufficiently Italianate traits, and he is hardly mentioned. But Förtsch was one of the leading composers in the early years of the Hamburg opera, certainly a progressive institution. He visited Italy himself, and would have heard much of the newest Italian music circulating in Germany; his aesthetic decisions in the realm of church music are surely trivialized by the assertion that he was simply more interested in other pursuits, such as medicine and poetry. Indeed, more individual pieces by Förtsch survive (all in Österreich's collection, later sold to Bokemeyer) than by Geist and Meder combined. It seems to this reviewer that any survey of seventeenth-century northern German church music that does not convey some sense of his work must be considered incomplete.(note 6)

3.4 Webber is not always consistent in his use of the Italian style as a critical template. To illustrate the "conservative element" in Buxtehude's music, he cites the settings of the two Vespers Psalms Dixit Dominus (BuxWV 17) and Laudate pueri (BuxWV 69): "The first of these shows little advance on the early seventeenth-century northern Italian style found in Tunder's Psalm settings, whilst the second is based on a highly idiosyncratic ostinato bass, rather than on one of the typical Italian formulas employed by other northern German composers" (p. 83). Fifty pages on, Webber describes Laudate pueri as having "the most elaborate ostinato bass ... in the northern German church of the period," and "rather than merely copying a standard Italian type of theme, Buxtehude invents [one] ... employing an unusually high level of rhythmic variety" (p. 139). Finally, in the book's conclusion, such "idiosyncratic" bass lines are taken to exemplify the ways in which "Italian compositional techniques were sometimes adapted by the northern German composers to suit their own ends" (p. 195). Thus what was first presented as a conservative trait, is eventually figured as progressive, and to my mind represents the most creative, of musical endeavors—the adaptation and transformation of compositional models in order to achieve new expressive goals. This small but telling inconsistency in Webber's treatment of Laudate pueri goes to the heart of the problem with the developmental model and its insufficiency as a tool for critical judgment. Thus, when Webber awards Meder and Geist a status equal to that of Buxtehude in the book's conclusion, this seems insufficiently grounded and could perhaps have been argued more persuasively beyond asserting the putative modernity of their music.

4. Survey of an Age

4.1 Despite this basic historiographical objection, I recommend this book as an important contribution to the study of seventeenth-century northern German vocal music. Webber offers a valuable and well-argued analysis of the ideological tensions between Lutheran Orthodoxy and Pietism and the effect such doctrinal impulses had on liturgical music and aesthetics. His understanding of the theological context makes him especially good on the literary sources of the repertoire, and helps strengthen his point that the greatest concern of Lutheran composers of vocal music was the expression of the text. Webber's survey of the ways in which the Italian style was imported to northern Germany—through the arrival of Italian musicians in northern musical establishments, and study-trips by Germans to Italy, as well as the dissemination of Italian anthologies compiled by German editors—and his reassessment of the currency of Italian taste around the Baltic through the course of the seventeenth century, affords us a deeper understanding of Buxtehude's accomplishments as well as those of his contemporaries. Refreshing, too, to find a scholar who has studied the repertoire so thoroughly also praising the music of Österreich—previously dismissed as a second-rate composer, even if a dogged scribe—for its "high creativity and crastmanship." (p. 71)

4.2 Where Webber goes into detail, he is at his best, as when he offers an attentive reading of a Geist accompagnied recitative, points out the beautiful harmonic moments in a Weckman motet (p. 75), or incisively describes the relationship between text and music in Cum invocarem by Johann Theile (teacher of Österreich and friend of Buxtehude). (p. 69–70) As befits a survey, Webber's description of Augustin Pfleger's Evangelien-Jahrgang is concise, but nonetheless conveys a good sense of the music, accomplishing the goal of encouraging the reader to become interested in this forgotten figure and his work. Webber's command of the repertory, as well as the related theoretical and polemical literature is impressive and makes this an engaging and useful study, one that encourages us to learn more about composers such as Cratone Bütner, Kaspar Förster, Christian Ritter, Martin Köler, Balthasar Erben, Johann Theile, Georg Österreich, and Georg Schürmann and to hear more of their long-dormant, but, with Webber's help, awakening music.


*David Yearsley (dgy2@cornell.edu) is Assistant Professor of Music at Cornell University. Active as a musicologist and performer, his recording of music by Delphin and Nicolaus Adam Strungk, played on the historic Arp Schnitger organ in Norden, Germany is forthcoming (Loft Recordings). Return to begining


1. Johann Mattheson, Grundlage einer Ehren-Pforte (Hamburg: Author, 1740), ed. Max Schneider (Berlin: Liepmannssohn, 1910; reprint Graz: Akad. Druck- u. Verlagsanst., 1969), 94. Return to text

2. See Kerala Snyder, Dieterich Buxtehude: Organist in Lübeck (New York: Schirmer, 1987), 26, 95. Return to text

3. Meder is more or less presenting himself, as Mattheson derived the article from a series of letters by Meder written to his brother, who had, in turn, supplied the documents to Mattheson, as the last makes clear (pp. 218–23). Return to text

4. Snyder, Dieterich Buxtehude, 120. Return to text

5. Nicolaus Bruhns, Mein Herz ist bereit, ed. Fritz Stein (Frankfurt: Henry Litolff, 1939; reprint 1960), preface. Return to text

6. Hellmuth Christian Wolff, whose criticism evinces a certain German bias (a tendency noted by Webber in scholarly treatment of sacred music), praises Förtsch precisely for his independence from Italian influence: "Förtsch was one of the early Hamburg opera composers who was least reliant on the Italians and therefore deserves special attention." Wolff, Die Barockoper in Hamburg (Wolfenbüttel: Möseler, 1957), 231. Return to text


Note especially the 1995 box set, Musik på Tre Kronor directed by Hans Davidsson (Musica Sveciae, MSCD 306-307); as well as Laudate!: Music from the Düben Collection; with the Uppsala Akademiska Kammarkör, performed by the Drottingholms Barockensemble directed by Anders Eby (Proprius, PRCD 9100; recorded in 1978 and 1981, re-issued on compact disc in 1994).

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