Fame, it’s not your brain, it’s just the flame that burns your change

What happens when that illusory arrow of progress takes a bit of a u-turn?

Today’s exhibit in the zig-zag of music history is Dieterich Buxtehude, who most people only remember as a precursor of Bach, and that Johann Sebastian once hiked 200 miles to hear him play. But that organist’s holiday should tell you something—Buxtehude was pretty famous in his time. He was the organist for the church at Lübeck, and judging by his published compositions, Sundays in Lübeck must have been something. His preludes whip through promiscuous numbers of textures and moods. He thinks nothing of turning a simple chorale prelude into a full-fledged multi-movement dance suite (“Auf meinen lieben Gott,” BuxWV 179—score here). His imitative works are built on unusually angular and ruminative themes. Here’s a particular example: the Fugue in C major, BuxWV 174 (score here). Go on—show this subject to your 18th-Century Counterpoint instructor and see if you pass.

Break out the red pen—too long, too jumpy, too harmonically ambiguous (eight notes in, and he’s making the tonic sound like the dominant). But it’s the final cadence that’s really far out: Buxtehude just hangs on to that tonic triad in the face of all kinds of diatonic dissonance from the bass.

Now Bach certainly had his wild moments, but I can’t think of anything near that crazy. In just about every one of his organ works, in fact, Buxtehude tosses off some musical inspiration—a melodic turn, a clash of harmonies, an unprepared jump-cut to an entirely new texture and tempo—that Bach would have at least thought twice about.

The point here is not to somehow demonstrate that Buxtehude was a better composer than Bach, or that one or the other of them made some sort of “wrong turn,” to borrow that awful phrase so beloved of prescriptivist music historians. The point is that those composers we remember as particularly important, or influential, or innovatory—that’s as much a fortuitous accident of time and place as it is the force of individual creativity. Bach had an unparalleled talent for assimilating disparate influences into an architecturally harmonious whole at a time when an unprecedented number of disparate influences—Renaissance polyphony, Lutheran chorale, Italian monody, French dance music, you name it—was ripe for assimilation. If Bach’s personal style evolved in a more conservative direction than Buxtehude’s ever did, that evolution intersected with the musical current of the time such that it became a river feeding countless tributaries over the next centuries. And so Bach is remembered as the singular genius, the navigator that charted the way for everyone who came after him, while Buxtehude is just the guy back in port who encouraged him to buy a boat. (It’s interesting to consider what part local preference played in both careers as well. Buxtehude’s avant-garde ways—in addition to his organ-playing, he was a pioneer in large-scale sacred dramatic works—apparently went over well in Lübeck: he kept his post for nearly forty years, ending only with his death in 1707. Bach, on the other hand, returned from his trip to hear Buxtehude to find local officials in Arnstadt complaining about, among other things, the over-elaborate nature of his chorale accompaniments.)

In other words, even if Buxtehude was more adventurous, more innovatory than Bach, Bach became the more important composer because he was lucky enough to live at a time uniquely suited to his formidable genius. Buxtehude is rather like Winston Churchill in 1912 or so—obviously talented, impatiently forward-looking, but lacking access to a stage on which his talents can fully flourish. Bach is like Churchill in 1940: the exact person at the exact moment in history.

Buxtehude is one of those radical composers who always seem to flourish just before a historical consolidation—think of C.P.E. Bach, or Carl Maria von Weber, or George Antheil. Would they rank higher in the Pantheon if they had come along fifty years later? Fifty years earlier? It’s hard to say. But then again, what if Bach had been a contemporary of Mozart? What if Beethoven had been born in France in 1860? Contrafactuals like those always carry a whiff of the ridiculous, but they point up how, maybe even more than sheer talent, it’s how that talent interacts—or doesn’t interact—with the time and place it’s launched into that determines the historical standing of the bearer. If I end up rating only a cursory mention in the 2200 edition of the New Grove, I may be able to claim the same excuse as Brian Wilson: I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.

I got to thinking about this after Adam and Daniel were talking last week about musical innovation.


  1. Matthew —I’m with you all the way until the Churchill analogy. From a world history point of view it has become increasingly plausible that Churchill’s most important — and most disastrous — contribution was made in the post WWI era, and specifically with his role in re-drawing the borders of a good part of the fromer Ottoman empire, and distributing thrones to a collection of Hashemite monarchies indepted to western interests. The effects of this have been disastrous.

  2. Something that I love about Buxtehude vis a vis J.S. Bach is that Buxtehude focuses more on melody than on harmony; the clashes are kind of rugged and unconsidered (Yes, I see that in your fugue example that the leaps are based on triads-although they wouldn’t have been thought of as triads at the time, because triads didn’t exist as a concept until Rameau or so-, but the progression doesn’t have the qualities that we’d think of in “functional/tonal” harmony- this is what you said about ambiguity and more- IMO it’s harmonically ambiguous because melody signaling harmony wasn’t important to Buxtehude). Bux’s music has many of the attractive features of the baroque, dense counterpoint of Bach, without harmony ruling melody and rhythm by fiat, as it would for much music of the 17th through 20th centuries (which I must say I find tiresome; too much of that and I must escape to the more interesting inter-relations of musical elements of the 8th-16th and 20th and 21st centuries).The downside of Buxtehude’s music for me vis a vis Bach is the fact that the the harmony being imbedded in each melodic element and ruling from on high in Bach allows him a much more dramatic use of dissonance (and interestingly the ability to add more independent voices), such as in the Fantasia from the Fantastia and Fugue in g minor.Something important to remember about this is that Buxtehude would fail the counterpoint exam because our 18th Century counterpoint rules are based on ideas that came after him, or even Bach. It’s worthwhile to note that Buxtehude’s fugue doesn’t sound crazy in affect; it breaks certain grammatical conventions, but Bach’s g minor Fantasia does create an impression of ‘Good lord- how far will this go?!’ Saying that Buxtehude is more harmonically adventurous than Bach is a bit of a non sequitur; like saying what the -? Chaucer (or Shakespeare) don’t spell anything correctly! And speak in fragments! Etcetera!Also, in a way Bach, although we see him as the summation of the Baroque, took the baroque elements of music and came to a different conclusion than everyone else; his music is much more dense, difficult, nuanced (not in the simple affekt mode here like Monteverdi or Handel- or in the rocco!), and at times downright scary than Handel, Scarlatti, even Monteverdi!And! I don’t know if Bux really was that innovatory in musical elements when you compare him to Orlando di Lasso, Cipriano de Rore, or Carlo Gesualdo, whose musical grammar is in a way similar to Buxtehude’s.Our view of Bach as conservative and the schoolmaster of tonal harmony, I feel, doesn’t have anything to do with what he did, but rather with what musical academics were thinking in the 19th century. Mendelssohn made the academics aware of him, thus enabling them to write tonal harmony textbooks with him as the focus? Of course bach fits the rules most of the time when we base the rules on his music!I feel that your mixing and matching of composers with time periods has a pretty simple answer; no, they probably would not have been as well known, because they might not have made the same connections that bought their music and buttered their bread. My primary example when I think about this is the ars subtilior; this style contains some fantastic music- just amazingly human and full of rich and nuanced feelings, and represents a totally different direction than the Burgundian School, which failed due to a lack of political and financial support, rather than (as has <>so<> unjustly been said) because it was a ‘dead end’ or even because it ‘wasn’t good music.’ – we find comments like this even in Grout, or in the Willi Apel Notation book… Furthmore, the Burgundians succeeded because that was were the money and power were!

  3. Hello Matthew —You/we are not alone. Benjamin Britten in a letter to Peter Pears circa 1940 averred that Buxtehude was “better than Bach!”Exhibit A. There’s this chaconne-like cantata BuxWV 92 “Quemadmodum desiderat cervus” — the Psalm “As the hart desireth the waterbrook” auf Lateinsich — that has a two-bar basso ostinato that’s repeated 64 times. Above it, in continuous variation alternating with two violins and bc, is a syncopated, melismatic vocal line (for tenor) that, I swear, positively swings. It’s practically Top 40 material.As I say, all you need is four performers. For your next party …rb

  4. I’ve always prefered Bux to JSB – more honest to goodness emotional – really – and not over extended and over blown and tiresome.

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