At Easter and at any time
Add date: Monday, 15 February 2016
For one hundred hears, he was famous mainly because Johann Sebastian Bach travelled 400 km and took advantage of the trust of his superiors, in order to listen to him play for three months. Today, Dieterich Buxtehude, the famous organist from Lübeck, speaks with his own voice. It is a singing voice – not that of an organ – since we have long known that as a composer, he did not limit himself to keyboard instruments, but that vocal music was an important part of his work. It’s not surprising that Bach found it difficult to leave Buxtehude – there was no better model for his own work. During the festival, the old master’s music will be presented by an ensemble that feels right at home in a Bach repertoire – Vox Luminis, who are making their debut at Misteria Paschalia.
The performers have not been performing for a long time, but they have already been showered with awards – among others, last year they received an ICMA (International Classical Music Award), handed out by an international group of music critics. The ensemble aims at an aesthetic known from the accomplishments of Philippe Herreweghe, based on a unity of breath and emotion, pastel colours and natural expression. It is the perfect style for music of the North.
Throughout his life, Buxtehude was associated with the North: he was born in Denmark, worked in Helsingborg and Helsingør, only to become a citizen of Lübeck in 1668. There, he took on work in the most important music centre of orthodox Lutheran Hanseatic city: the Marienkirche, St Mary’s Church. He became famous as an organist who was second to none – and it was this fame that attracted back to him. Once he arrived, however, Johann Sebastian had to come in contact with the other genres of Buxtehude’s work – and they were numerous. The composer knew how to use the excellent conditions he found in the wealthy Lübeck like no other: the functioning of a group of professional city musicians (multi-instrumentalists, who enabled him to form diverse instrumental line-ups) and a declared love for the art of sound among wealthy merchant families.
Music was indeed a reason for pride for the entire city: in 1697, a printed guide to Lübeck told the visitors to the Marienkirche: “On the western side, between two pillars under towers, you can see the great and magnificent organ, at which currently sits, in addition to the small one, a world-renowned organist and composer, Dieterich Buxtehude. Particularly noteworthy is the great, pleasant vocal Abend-Musik presented annually after the sermon during Sunday vespers, from four to five o’clock for five Sundays between St Martin’s feast day and Christmas, in an artistic and glorious manner by the aforementioned organist as a conductor, which does not happen anywhere else.”
The Abendmusiken were a particular form of public concerts: prepared every year, sponsored by donors, and free to the public. They were begun before Buxtehude, but it was thanks to him that they achieved prominence and fame, becoming a true reason for the local residents’ pride.
Unfortunately, the oratorios composed by Buxtehude were lost. What remains are mainly cantatas, including an exceptional cycle, which in a way serves as a substitute for the oratorios – a collection of seven cantatas titled “Membra Jesu Nostri”. These cantatas will be the main part of the Holy Saturday concert in the Wieliczka salt mine.
The cycle, composed in 1680, is the most important collection of the composer’s vocal music that survived to our times. At the same time, it also poses the most questions. The forms of the pieces are typical: they are cantatas, typical of the surviving Buxtehude works of the concert-aria type, differing from the others in that they use a Latin text, instead of the German. And, as has been said, they are arranged in a cycle.
This is where the question arises: was the cycle the form they functioned in when they were composed? It would appear so from the internal logic of the collection, in which individual cantatas are arranged according to a tonal succession by fifths. Were they presented individually, or as a whole? When were they performed? Nothing suggests that they could have been a repertoire for an Abendmusik; however, there is nothing to indicate that they were not, and in some ways, they would have fit these “religious opera” concerts (as they would later be named by an author who write about them).
The "Membra" are not a religious drama, but rather a contemplative work. The medieval text, attributed at the time to St Bernard of Clairvaux, or at least from the Cistercian circles – raises prayers to the wounds of the martyred Christ. The music co-creates emotions, reaching its peaks in the bold cantata “Ad cor” – “To the Heart”. It is not surprising that someone once noted on the pages of the score: “At Easter and at any time”.