Although he saw himself as Danish, Buxtehude is known as a German composer – the giant of the mid-baroque’. He was known primarily – and employed – as an organist. His first job was in Helsingborg (now Sweden) when he was 10 or 11 years old.
Twenty years later he applied successfully for the post of Organist at the Marienkirche in the centre of Lübeck. He immediately married a daughter of his predecessor, Franz Tunder; he was also automatically appointed Werkmeister of the church. This meant Buxtehude was secretary, treasurer and business manager of the church. Something to keep him busy between the Sundays!
As organist he was responsible for providing music for the main services every Sunday, composing music where necessary. He was greatly revered for his improvisations on the organ. In addition to this and his administrative Werkmeister activities, he became famous for his Abendmusike, ‘Evening-musics’, which had been initiated by Tunder, his predecessor. When Buxtehude took over he assigned them to Sundays in Advent and Trinity.
These Abendmusike would now often take the form of oratorios which were the church equivalent of operas. They were highly dramatic, and clearly were a huge influence on Bach in his settings of the Passion.
In old age he was something of a celebrity. He stayed rooted in Lübeck, but people came from far and wide to hear him play the organ. Handel visited from nearby Hamburg, also Bach from distant Arnheim. Bach’s obituary stated he ‘took Buxtehude as his model in the art of the organ’; it may well have been that seeing Buxtehude as the director of music in the city of Lübeck gave him the idea of pursuing something similar himself – in Leipzig, as it turned out.