Bach in Luebeck

Bach famously walked the 250 miles from Arnstadt. He had been given 4 weeks leave from his post at the Arnstadt court; he stayed in Lübeck for 4 months. The year was 1705, the year of the death of Emperor Leopold I and the accession of Joseph I. Bach was probably present at the Extraordinary Abendmusike Buxtehude put on to mark these events.



Tunder started these as week-day organ recitals, but they became more generalised concerts in the church.

They may first have been afternoon concerts for businessmen who were waiting for the stock-exchange to open. Although Buxtehude moved them to Sundays at 4 pm, they still continued to be financed mainly by the business community. Indeed a donor would receive a printed libretto and be given a good seat. Admission to the church was, in true Hanseatic tradition, free to all citizens of whatever position in society; but it was not unknown for disorderly conduct to break out during the performances.


Buxtehude’s marriage

This seems to have been a condition of his employment. Though this appears odd now, it was common practice for a successor to marry the daughter of his predecessor, in all walks of life. It was common, for instance, for a promising (and lucky?) apprentice to marry his master’s daughter.

A generation later Handel visited with his friend Matthesson (in 1703). Buxtehude was 66 and perhaps wishing to retire, so Mattheson was considered as his possible successor. But when they offered him the job it transpired Buxtehude’s daughter was part of the package. Mattheson suddenly lost interest.


Marienkirche, Lübeck


Marienkirche, Lübeck

This is a splendid Backsteingotik (brick gothic) church, immensely high with light flooding in though its tall windows. It started off as a Roman Catholic church, and was decorated with lovely frescoes.

In the early 16thcentury it became Lutheran and the frescoes, being anathema, were painted over. This must have been done many times over the centuries. Then came the allied bombings in 1942. The blast from these caused the paint to fall off, happily revealing the frescoes which are now being restored

The burghers of the North German cities, seeing the wonderful gothic cathedrals in France and Flanders wanted to build something similar. Unfortunately there is no suitable stone in the far north of Germany; but there is plenty of clay, so the churches are built of brick.

Backstein Gotik

Unlike the small early English bricks, those of North Germany are quite chunky, larger than modern bricks. However, for very tall structures – and these churches are very tall – they are less stable than large blocks of stone. One is now aware of the fragility of these buildings which need iron braces to hold them together.


Dieterich Buxtehude (c.1637 – 1707)

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.

Haydn’s Kleine Orgelmesse (Missa Brevis Sancti Johannis de Deo)

Joseph Haydn’s employer, Count Nicolaus I of Esterhazy, was a keen amateur musician and made huge demands on Haydn. This meant the greater part of Haydn’s output took the shape of symphonies and chamber music written for the Court. But he was called upon at times to compose music for the Church.

Haydn presenting the Mass to the brothers in 1775

In Eisenstadt, just down the road from the Esterhazy Palace was the Abbey of the Brothers of Mercy (Barmherziger Brüder) – it is now the hospital. Haydn (who also lived in the same street) had a great liking for the Brotherhood, and this lovely little Mass is one of a number of works he wrote for them.  It is deliberately modest both in the musical resources needed to perform it and in its dimensions.  To keep it short, Haydn used the common practice in the Gloria and the Credo of having four lines of text sung simultaneously by different voices; tricky if you’re trying to follow the words, but it does eat up the text!

The interior of the Brothers’ chapel, with the organ Haydn played at the first performance.


Brahms’ German Requiem

First impulse

It is thought by some that Brahms was first prompted to compose a requiem by the death of his friend Robert Schumann in 1856. There is little likelihood that he could have undertaken this at the time since he had been supporting Schumann’s wife Clara during her husband’s last two years of illness and, when Schumann died, Brahms was in the middle of a crisis in the creativity department. The idea of an unfulfilled desire to write a requiem seems quite plausible, though.

Choice of text

Since his early years Brahms had been an avid reader and deeply interested in literature. So he was in the habit of choosing works of literary weight to set to music, rather than more obvious lyric poetry (which would have been easier to set).

Brahms’ German Requiem

Brahms composed the German Requiem between 1865 and 1868, when he was in his mid-30s and in full flow with works such as the Piano Quintet, String Sextets, the Horn Trio, the Handel-and Paganini Variations. It was a time of passionate involvement with a number of young ladies, at one point almost ending in marriage. But in February 1865 he was devastated by the death of his mother, an event which triggered the composition of the Requiem.

For his text he turned to Luther’s wonderful, resonant translation of the Bible, choosing parts which had things to say to the grieving living, rather than being focused on the dead (as in the Catholic Mass for the Dead). The result is a work with deeply dark moments, but which is ultimately comforting and greatly uplifting. His careful naming of it as ‘A German Requiem’ signals the fact that it has nothing to do with the Christian liturgy. It is written specifically for the concert hall, and Brahms commented that it could be called a Human Requiem.

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