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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 6 (2000) No. 2

Dietrich Buxtehude. Organ Works. Lena Jacobson, organist. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (BMG Classics), 1997. [DHM 05472-77455-2.]

Reviewed by Hans Davidsson*

1. Organ Performance Practice of the 1970s and 1980s

2. Lena Jacobson’s Performances


1. Organ Performance Practice of the 1970s and 1980s

1.1 In 1982, Lena Jacobson recorded a selection of organ works by Dietrich Buxtehude on the famous Huss-Schnitger organ in Stade, Sanct Cosmae. At the same time she presented her theories about rhetorical aspects in J. S Bach’s and D. Buxtehude’s organ works in two articles in The Organ Yearbook.1The release of her recording within the Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (DHM) series labeled “Baroque Esprit,” whose aim is to present “outstanding recordings which truly reflect historical performance practices ... performed by leading artists,” inevitably drew my attention to the organ performance practice of the 1980s.

1.2 The early music revival of the twentieth century applied, of course, also to the organ. However not until the 1970s did actual copying of historical organs and “objective” restorations of historical organs become generally accepted and practiced. The Berendt Huss-Arp Schnitger organ in Stade was the first large North German baroque organ to be restored according to these new standards, which Jürgen Ahrend established with this restoration (1975). The period to come would be the era of restoration of the large North German and Dutch baroque organs, work that would not have been possible without the Dutch organ expert Cornelius H. Edskes and the oeuvre of the leading organ builder of the second half of the twentieth century, Jürgen Ahrend. Klaas Bolt in the Netherlands and Harald Vogel in Germany played important roles in this development, and Vogel was to become the true pioneer and ambassador for the North German baroque organ tradition and the new performance ideas, the so-called “alte Spielweise.” The Schnitger conference in Groningen in 1969 and the summer courses (which became the Norddeutsche Orgelakademie) begun by Vogel in 1972 created important international interest in the North German organ tradition.

1.3In 1974, Harald Vogel presented these new perspectives for the first time in Sweden at a conference in Leufstabruk on the J. N. Cahman organ of 1728. Göran Blomberg introduced Sweden to the “alte Spielweise” through the Swedish Radio and at various workshops and courses around the country. Lena Jacobson appeared at this time on the Swedish church-music scene and started to give lectures, workshops and concerts as a freelance artist. She gave the ideas of the “alte Spielweise” a concrete form in Sweden that was not always fully appreciated. The real breakthrough in Sweden for historically-informed performance ideas in the organ field did not occur until the first International Organ Academy was held in Falun in 1982 (Mats berg/Jacques van Oortmerssen). The new perspectives were soon integrated into the church music education in Göteborg, and they would lead to research and instrument building projects in the Schools of Music in PiteŒ and Göteborg during the 1990s. In 1997 the PiteŒ Music School completed a replica of the seventeenth-century organ originally in the German Church in Stockholm, and the seventeenth-century North German research organ in Göteborg was inaugurated at the Göteborg International Organ Academy in August of 2000. The first creative steps in the development of both of these projects can also be traced to the early 1980s, at the time when Lena Jacobson made these recordings.

2. Lena Jacobson’s Performances

2.1 My reacquaintance with Jacobson’s recording inevitably required that I return to her writings; what else could better shed some light on the paradigm of intention in her performance? On the macro level she emphasizes the essential element of “structural oppositions,” contrasts, in the overall form, the dispositio. In Buxtehude’s free works the contrast between the fugal and free sections, thus, is essential: “the strangeness of the Confutatio is ... completely dependent on the orderly counterpoint of the surrounding parts for its effect.”2 With two exceptions, however (the openings of the first fugues of BuxWV 149 and BuxWV 150), the fugal sections are not performed as orderly counterpoint and can hardly be perceived as contrasts to the free sections. Moreover, the contrasts between the pair of fugues, the propositio and confirmatio, usually the first in duple and the second in triple meter, is hardly audible; the triple meter often seems to be duple time as a result of “gestural” prolongation of the first beat (for example BuxWV 140). No proportional relation between the various sections and their time signatures can be heard.

2.2 In free sections of indisputable continuity and motion, the motives are enhanced to such a degree that the linear architecture disappears and contrasting elements (for example the pauses—abruptios—in measures 22–23 of BuxWV 143) lose their effect. Often rhythmical motives, for example triplets and figura corta (one eighth followed by two sixteenth notes) are equalized, so one cannot distinguish them from one another. Jacobson’s strongly expressed idea to make the music “speak” to the listener in a performance of “sung tonal speech” is most likely the reason for these consequences. The intention to make the “abrupt, almost thrown-away and entirely improvisatory cut-out phrases and gestures so typical for Buxtehude’s free organ works”3 is thus well accomplished, but with one important exception: the element of improvisation is missing. For example, the confutatio sections of BuxWV 139 (mm. 87–94) and BuxWV 149 (mm 50–54), with their sequences of modulations and embellished harmonies, are played not con discrezione but regularly, with almost the same length for each chord, giving no evidence of hierarchy or intuitive accentuation. Sometimes one perceives an unrestrained development, as in the last section of BuxWV 145, but in general the focus on the micro level prevents the motives from forming larger musical units and gestures, or from generating any natural progression or linear development. Consequently, the opening arpeggio of BuxWV 150 is presented in discontinuous fragments.

2.3 The performer with an intuitive approach pays attention to the sound and behavior of the instrument as well as the room’s acoustics. There is very little response and attention in Jacobson’s performance to the wind and breathing of the Huss-Schnitger organ (unfortunately no information about the organ is available in the CD booklet). The registration choices for the chorale works do not correspond to the compositional structure of the pieces and create confusion in the contrapuntal texture, nor are they related to any historical sources. The choice of plenum registrations for the free works is supported by several sources but bears no witness to the awareness of a relationship between tonal and compositional structure, sound and affect. Evidence of Jacobson’s creative imagination appears in the opening dialogue of BuxWV 139, the cadenza extension of BuxWV 150, and the presentation of the theme of the “gushing bird trill fugue” of BuxWV 145, but these unfortunately give only fragments of “Esprits” in a context of confusion.

2.4 If one element is missing, any aesthetic system unravels; if one element is consistently predominant, there is no balance, no interaction, and no living art. The uncompromising projection of the idea of a “sung tonal speech” in Jacobson’s playing unfortunately results in a constructed irregularity that is perceived as regular, and a non-intuitive mannerism that gives no space for balance, contrast, or the unexpected, all considered to be essential elements of the seventeenth-century paradigm. The result is an almost surrealistic picture of scattered motives and ideas, “cut-out phrases and gestures,” with no relationship to one another, nor to the perfectly proportioned and balanced architecture on the CD cover (the St. Mary's Church in Utrecht by Pieter Jansz Saendredam). The recording, however, can possibly be seen as a congenial application of an important perspective of twentieth-century aesthetics: the uncompromising projection and realization of a purely intellectual concept. As such it is indeed an impressive accomplishment, a truly consistent practice of performance rather than a performance in an historical practice. If the intention of the Deutsche Harmonia Mundi “Baroque Esprit” series is to present the most extreme examples of twentieth-century performance practice, the re-release of Lena Jacobson’s Buxtehude recording must be considered to be most successful.


*Hans Davidsson (Hans.Davidsson@musik.gu.se), Ph.D., is Associate Professor of organ at the School of Music, Göteborg University, and project leader of the Göteborg Organ Art Center, Göteborg University and Chalmers University of Technology, Göteborg, Sweden. In January 2001 he will also become Associate Professor of organ at the Eastman School of Music. Return to beginning


1. “Musical Figures in BWV 131,” The Organ Yearbook 11 (1980): 60–83; and “Musical Rhetoric in Buxtehude's Free Organ Works,” ibid. 13 (1982): 60–79. Return to text

2. Jacobson, “Musical Rhetoric,” 75. Return to text

3. Jacobson, “Musical Rhetoric,” 60. Return to text

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