Dudley Buck, whose family descended from the first generation of puritan immigrants, was instrumental in establishing organ and choir music in the USA. Even though he had been expected to enter the family's shipping business, Buck eventually convinced his parents to allow him to become a musician.
Studies in Germany & France
In 1858, Buck left his hometown Hartford, CT, to study in Europe. In Leipzig (where Grieg was his classmate), his love for the music of Bach and Mendelssohn (the founder of the Conservatory) was kindled. In Dresden, he perfected his pedal technique with Schneider,
After his return to the US in December 1862, he held positions in churches in Hartford, Chicago, Boston, and New York, at the Boston Music Hall (where he gave three weekly hour-long recitals on the hall's famous Walcker organ, pictured on the left), taught at the New England Conservatory, and was assistant conductor of Theodore Thomas' Summer Garden Concerts. His organ concerts with popular programs that included works by composers such as Bach, Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Mozart (transcriptions in the case of the latter two) were highly successful, and greatly helped to promote the organ as a concert instrument.
Focus on Composition
Buck had already established himself as a composer with his Motette Collections (published in 1864 and 1871) for choir and organ, and decided to concentrate on composition in the 1870's. In his organ works, he cultivated classic organ forms such as sonatas and variation sets (with Mendelssohn as his model) in a more popular style. His Concert Variations on ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, Op.23 (1866) are a perfect example of this popular genre that delighted a large but not always very sophisticated public in the 19th century:
- The melody was easily recognizable in the hymn-like settings of the anthem that frames the five variations;
- Different stop combinations could be used in each variation - as such, "the congregation could be shown... how many pleasing and novel effects they had got for their money;"
- The variations were designed for small combinations (such as strings, flutes, vox humana & oboe solos) that would be convincing in the dry acoustic customary in most American churches at that time;
- The pedal-solo variation and the concluding fugue allowed the organist to show off his pedal technique and the full power of the organ.
Buck served as the American Guild of Organists' first honorary president (1896-99); Yale University wanted to hire him as organ instructor and award him an honorary degree as Doctor of Music - Buck turned down both offers; in 1908, the New York Press proclaimed him "Dean of Living American Composers" because of his popularity among churchgoers; less than 20 years later, his music was declared "too suave and too popular [!] to rank with the best American composers."
Buck rose to fame thanks to his ability to blend "his listeners' desire for elevation with the accessibility of [his] music." Lee Orr wrote that his choral music "offered challenge, substance, and the thrill of participating in music that praised God while touching their own hearts." Through decades of working with choirs, Buck was intimately familiar with the taste of the average citizen. This is also evident in his concert variations, a rousing celebration of America.
N. Lee Orr, Dudley Buck (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008).
N. Lee Orr, "Dudley Buck: Victorian American Composer," in Dudley Buck - American Victorian Choral Music (Middleton: A-R Editions, 2005).
Barbara Owen, "Nineteenth-century American concert organ music," in Fugues, Fantasia, and Variations (New York: New World Records, 80280), Oktober 1994.
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Jens is available for concerts, workshops, and presentations.