Music of the Baroque avante-garde - Douglas hollick (RVRCD79)


The term ‘avant-garde’ is usually associated with new music of our own time, but it can equally be applied to ground breaking works of any period, where composers were pushing the boundaries of the accepted (or indeed acceptable!) practices of their time. The early 17th century saw the emergence of opera and the Seconda Prattica, the controversy about musical theory between Monteverdi and Artusi (the new versus the old styles of music), and many changes in musical form and harmony. It is within this period of great change and experimentation that the present programme has its genesis. Linked with the keyboard music is the development towards the end of the century of tuning systems which would allow greater freedom of modulation. Perhaps less obvious in the present day is the fact that the great organs of North Germany in the first half of the 17th century were also pushing the boundaries of development. They were often very large, and their building entailed elements of architecture in the case, engineering in the mechanics and metallurgy in the production of pipe metal. These organs were among the most advanced technical products of the age.

Freedom and virtuosity are two key elements here, and of particular interest is how the musical text of the Stylus Phantasticus works is interpreted. This is an area of experimental research which has fascinated Douglas Hollick for more than ten years, endeavouring to engage with this dramatic and rhetorical music in a way the contemporary players might have done. The virtuosity of this music is not only in the modern meaning of the word. Kircher, who coined the term Stylus Phantasticus in his Musurgia universalis’of 1650, emphasises the virtuosity of the compositional techniques, and as with the parallel madrigalian and operatic world of the Seconda Prattica, much of this music exhibits extreme chromaticism and fine contrapuntal writing. It is in later writings such as Mattheson’s ‘Der vollkommene Capellmeister’ of 1739 where we are told ‘this style is the freest and least restricted style which one can devise …… since one sometimes uses one idea and sometimes another, since one is restricted by neither words nor melody, but only by harmony, so that the players’ skill can be revealed’. Here it is the virtuosity of the player that comes to the fore. In his research, Douglas Hollick has referred to contemporary writings on performance practice, and spent many hours experimenting with different ways of approaching these enigmatic texts. Of particular importance to this work was his Year 2000 Churchill Fellowship, which allowed him to visit and play many of the 17th century organs of Buxtehude’s area, and to assess the particular importance of the acoustics of the great brick Baltic churches to the understanding of this music.

Dieterich Buxtehude lived his entire life close to the shores of the Baltic Sea. He was most likely born in 1637 in the Danish town of Helsingborg, now part of Sweden. His father Johannes, also an organist, had moved to Helsingborg from Oldesloe in Holstein. Dieterich grew up in Helsingør, where his father was by then organist, and held posts as organist in Helsingborg S Mariae (c1658 - 60) and Helsingør S Mariae (1660 - 68). In 1668 he was appointed to the most prestigious position in North Germany, succeeding Franz Tunder as Organist and Werckmeister at St Marien in Lübeck. This great church, with a vault of 38.5m high, was where he developed the famous Abendmusiken which had been started by his predecessor, and it was to this church that the young Bach came in the  Advent of 1705. Much of the music of Buxtehude has been lost, including all of that for the Abendmusiken, and his rich corpus of organ music survives mainly through copies made by Bach and his circle of family, friends and pupils - there are no surviving autographs. It is perhaps because we actually know so little of Buxtehude’s music that he is so often seen simply as a predecessor of Bach, rather than the individual genius he quite obviously was!

The organs Buxtehude is known to have played, and those of the three churches where he was organist, are all typical of the 17th century North German/Scandinavian type, with a wide variety of colour, and sometimes as many as four manuals. His own instruments in Lübeck were the large west end organ, and the smaller instrument in the so-called Totentanz chapel at the east end of the church. Both were 3 manual and pedal, the main organ being of 54 stops including two 32 foot registers on the pedal, and containing a large variety of reed stops. Indeed, the reeds stops of the northern organs were something remarked on very appreciatively by Bach, in whose own home area of Thuringia organs had few reeds. Sadly very little of Lübeck survived the wartime bombing of 1942, and whilst the Marien has been rebuilt, it has none of the original interior or organs of Buxtehude’s time. Only the case of the large organ remained before the war, but the smaller ‘Totentanz’ organ was still intact. Anyone wishing to experience the sound world of Buxtehude should visit Helsingør, where in the S Mariae Kirk the organ of Buxtehude has been reconstructed in the original case, and is a wonderful instrument. The Helsingør organ can be heard on Douglas Hollick’s ‘Buxtehude, master and pupil’ CD, Riverrun RVRCD 67. To the east on the Baltic coast is Stralsund, where the 1659 Stellwagen organ still stands majestic at the west end of the Marienkirche there - a church and organ similar to and almost as large as that of Buxtehude’s in Lübeck.

With Buxtehude’s music it is to earlier composers we should look for influence - from the Netherlands comes the influence of Sweelinck, via many pupils who included Heinrich Scheidemann (Reinken’s predecessor at the Katharinenkirche in Hamburg) and Samuel Scheidt, whose Tabulatora Nova of 1624 exerted tremendous influence. Indeed from 1631 - 1651 the organists of all four of Hamburg’s principal churches had been students of Sweelinck: Jacob Praetorius at St Petri, his brother Johann at St Nicolai, Scheidemann at St Katharinen and Ulrich Cernitz  at St Jacobi. Italian influence comes through Heinrich Schütz and Matthias Weckmann (both pupils of Giovanni Gabrieli), Johann Jacob Froberger (a pupil of Frescobaldi) and Johann Kaspar Kerll (a pupil of Carissimi) amongst others. French influence was also to be found, through Froberger’s connection with Louis Couperin in Paris certainly, and also through the Danish Court during Buxtehude’s youth, and the Hamburg Opera during his maturity.

Part of the Italian tradition of organ playing during the Mass was the particular style of toccata used during the Elevation. From Fiori Musicali of 1635 comes one such toccata by Frescobaldi, showing all the hallmarks of this style in its intense chromaticism, dissonance and fluid meter. Composers such as Kerll and Froberger brought the Elevation toccata to northern Europe, and this style of writing would have been known in Lutheran areas just as well as in Catholic ones. Also from Fiori Musicali,the Bergamasca of Frescobaldi illustrates another aspect of the Italian style, where different musical figures are played with in complex counterpoint, but here always with the simple Bergamasca pattern underlying the structure. This love of figural writing was to become an important part of the German Baroque tradition.

Typical of the style of Sweelinck and his pupils was the use of different keyboards of the organ to create echoes, and this is heard very clearly in the Echo Fantasia. This is a quite different way of using the instrument from the Italian tradition, where organs rarely had more than one keyboard. Sweelinck’s pupil Scheidemann developed his teacher’s ideas, and made full use of the much larger and more fully developed organs of North Germany. His G major Toccata (of which a variant reading is used here) initially has a florid solo line for the right hand, but this later develops into echoes, and incorporates a descending chromatic figure which is answered in the final page by strong upward scales – musical figures representing the descent into hell, and resurrection respectively.

Buxtehude’s organ music falls into a number of categories: the ‘free’ works - toccatas, praeludia, ciaconas, passacaglia, canzonas etc and chorale and chant based works. In many we find a distinct sectional form, which exploits different registrations and divisions of the organ. On this recording there are three of his major organ works in the so called Stylus Phantasticus, the free improvisatory style of the Toccata or Praeludium, and one for harpsichord. These often have alternating free and measured contrapuntal sections, as can be seen in the opening Praeludium in C, which begins with an extended pedal solo and has the added interest of ending with a Ciacona, or variations on a repeated bass line. In both this work and the harpsichord Toccata by Buxtehude single bass notes near the end have been harmonised in accordance with normal figured bass practice – the harpsichord in particular needs the extra sonority of a chord, and it increases the rhetorical power of the final bars of the organ work.

Rossi, like Froberger, had been a pupil of Frescobaldi in Rome between 1624 and 1629, and his Toccata Settima is perhaps the most extreme example of this style, with its exceptional rhetorical freedom, and strikingly original – even bizarre – use of chromaticism. It has parallels of course in the madrigals of Monteverdi, Marenzio and Gesualdo, particularly in the dramatic shifts of harmony, but here it is pure music with no words to suggest or explain the meaning. The chromatic and dissonant chords in the final section of this toccata are greatly heightened here by the use of quarter comma meantone tuning – for instance the interval of C# up to F is heard as a diminished fourth, rather than a major third as it would sound in equal temperament.

Froberger is one of the most important composers of this period, studying with Frescobaldi in Rome between 1637 and 1640. It was through Froberger that many of the ideas of the Italian keyboard players travelled north, not only to his native Germany, but also to France. His Toccata in A minor shows the same overall structure as the opening Buxtehude work, with five sections alternating free and measured. The opening chord, notated as a simple breve tied to a minim is here elaborated in the way we know Froberger played – his friend Louis Couperin in Paris wrote his unmeasured preludes in imitation of the playing of Froberger, and there we can see exactly the sort of arpeggiation used for the opening chords. The Lamento has the subtitle ‘Sopra la dolorosa perdita della Real Msta di FERDINANDO IV, Ré de Romani + c.’; here we see the free style of the toccata transformed into a lute-like improvisation, where the player (as in so much of this repertoire) must read beyond the formal notation. Like the Rossi it has unexpected chromatic twists, and ends finally with a gentle C major ascent to heaven! The Capriccio VI is in four sections which take a chromatic figure rising through a fifth or its inversion falling through a fourth. Kircher’s idea of virtuosity of composition can be seen in the successive sections developing the figure and presenting an endless variety of permutations, including in the third section a short excursion into three time with syncopations. The meantone tuning is once more very telling here.

Weckmann was a close friend of Froberger, and ended his life in Hamburg as organist of the Jacobikirche, where he was a friend and colleague of Reinken and the young Buxtehude. The text of Weckmann’s A minor Toccata is perhaps the hardest to understand of all the works presented today – played literally it makes very little sense, and it is only by understanding the structure and harmonies that one can eventually ‘improvise’ this work in something like the way it must have originally been played. Unlike all the other toccatas in this programme, here we find virtually no contrapuntal episodes, being primarily harmonic structures with complex arpeggiations and rapid ornamental figures.

Kerll studied with Carissimi in Rome, and perhaps also with Frescobaldi, and spent most of his working life in Vienna. His harpsichord Ciaccona demonstrates the use of a simple repeated pattern over which variations are built; particularly interesting is that the whole piece is notated in ‘void’ notation – in other words, all the notes are ‘white’, while still having the values shown by the tails and beaming. It also has a long notated trill in one section with melody notes played within the same hand as the trill – something which is also seen much later in the music of Bach.

Most of Buxtehude’s Praeludia are for organ with pedals, but BuxWV 162 being for manuals only, it can be played either on the organ or the harpsichord. Like the organ Praeludia in this programme, this is again a sectional work with alternating free and measured sections. Perhaps one of the least obviously ‘avant-garde’ works in the programme, it does show the desire in the later 17th century for the freedom to modulate beyond the confines of the old meantone tuning, here moving to E minor, and needing the dominant of that key, B major with its D sharp. With the luxury of recording, it has been possible to use a variant of the normal meantone for this work and the Weckmann, with E flat replaced by D sharp.

The final harpsichord work by Johann Christoph Bach probably dates from near the end of the century, and is in the (then) very modern key of E flat major. This is a key completely impossible in meantone, and clearly demonstrates the move towards greater tonal freedom in keyboard tunings by the end of the 17th century. Organist in Eisenach and uncle of the great Johann Sebastian, Johann Christoph was regarded in the Bach family circle as a ‘profound composer’. The influence of Johann Pachelbel can be seen in the Praeludium whilst the expressive and chromatic Fuga is an impressive example of a Fuga pathetica. The work was well known in the circle of J S Bach and his friends, which may have led to a mistaken attribution of this work to J S Bach for many years.

Chromaticism is also very evident in the pivotal work of the programme, Buxtehude’s F sharp minor Praeludium. This is one of the finest examples of the Stylus Phantasticus from this period and pushes the boundaries of tonality, which at this time were severely limited by the old meantone tuning systems still used for most organs. During the 17th century there was great interest amongst scholars and performers in the question of temperament and use of more extreme keys. Old quarter comma meantone tunings were gradually giving way to circulating temperaments (called ‘unequal’ today) where there was more freedom of modulation. In meantone pure major thirds are on C, D, Eb, E, F, G, A, Bb, whilst unusable thirds are on C#, F#, G# (Ab does not exist!) and B; the ‘wolf’ fifth is from G# - Eb. As the century progressed, there are increasing signs of dissatisfaction with the old tunings, and in the F sharp minor Praeludia we see Buxtehude making a clear avant-garde statement to the world, for here is a piece which is unplayable in the old tunings.

A friend of Buxtehude, theorist and composer Andreas Werckmeister was a prominent figure in the debate about temperament, and in 1681 he published his Orgel-Probe, a dissertation on organ building, tuning and testing which Buxtehude would surely have known. In the later 1698 edition of this volume, Werckmeister says this: ‘Since, through the grace of God, music has so progressed and changed, it would be absurd if we had not tried to improve the keyboard, so that well-composed modern pieces should not be ruined, and a howl come out of them ....... Some would like to say that one should not compose in every key, such as C sharp, F sharp and G sharp. But I say that if one does not do it, another will ...... And why should I set limits for this person or that, and want to prohibit him from composing in this key? .... The free arts want free geniuses’. Maybe Werckmeister had this F sharp minor work in mind when he wrote this? Here we have the mix of fantasy, freedom and imitative counterpoint which makes these works so fascinating, but also so hard for the modern player to understand. The chordal section between the opening and the fugue might have been inspired by the central section of the Weckmann Toccata, whilst the briskly imitative section following the fugue is very similar in character to the central imitative section of the Froberger Toccata, emphasising the influence of earlier composers. The central free section is particularly notable, and has echoes of the Italian Elevation Toccatas, with dissonance and use of key colour very prominent. The unequal temperament of the Trinity College Metzler is very similar to the tuning systems advocated by Werckmeister, and allows one to hear this variety of key colour without any of the ‘howls’ of extremely out of tune tonalities.

Buxtehude’s E minor Ciacona contains a great variety of textures, and some very intense chromaticism reminiscent of the Elevation toccatas. The repeated bass line which underpins the work is itself varied, but always with the same underlying structure. It might be expected that this work would also lend itself to using the different colours of the organ for the various sections, but the music is written in such a way that it runs on from section to section making it very difficult to convincingly change manuals. In this performance it is registered in just one colour throughout, relying purely on the variety of musical texture and subtlety of articulation to create the illusion of different colours.

The fourth example of the Stylus Phantasticus ends the programme – perhaps the greatest of all Buxtehude’s Praeludia. Here, unusually, there are three fugal sections, all fully worked out, with free sections to open and close, and between the second and third fugues. Chromaticism is again very evident in the fugue subjects, particularly the central one, whilst the final fugue is in the form of a gigue.

In this tercentenary year, it is hoped that this programme will have placed Buxtehude’s free organ works in an historical perspective, illustrating a little of the background to his genius and the way these works use the size and colour of the North German organs so wonderfully. No wonder so many musicians made their way to Lübeck to hear him play!

Douglas Hollick and Riverrun Records gratefully acknowledge the support of the UCE Birmingham Conservatoire in producing this recording. Douglas Hollick teaches organ and harpsichord as a visiting tutor at the Conservatoire, where his research and performing has been actively encouraged.

An essay to accompany the recording, expanding somewhat on the sleeve notes accompanying the disc.

Instruments used on the recording

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