The glorious Praeludium in d, BuxWV 140, is an outstanding example of the North German organ school: it was inspired by the magnificent organs that Buxtehude had at his disposal in St. Mary's, and the rich cultural life in Lübeck—a proud member of the Hanseatic league.
Franz Tunder had initiated the practice of giving (organ) concerts for businessmen before the opening of the stock exchange as early as 1646. It was only under his successor Buxtehude, however, that the Abendmusiken developed
Buxtehude presented hourlong concerts after the vespers service on the five Sundays prior to Christmas, financed by rich merchants and sometimes also the church. Donors received benefits such as reserved seating, an advance copy of the libretto, and (later) admittance to dress rehearsals. According to an 18th-century source, the enjoyment of the music seems to have been somewhat diminished by the cold—"after one has already spent three hours [for vespers] in the cold one must freeze for a fourth hour as well"—and the noise—"mischievous young people...unruly running and romping about".
The first evidence for the presentation of a dramatic work during the Abendmusiken is from 1678— incidentally, the same year that the Hamburg opera was founded.
Eventually, Buxtehude composed and presented five-part oratorios—drama per musica, one part for each Sunday—which can be considered the sacred counterpart to the rival city's secular opera.
The various singers and ensembles that performed in the Abendmusiken were placed in the six (!) balconies around the organ loft at the west end of St. Mary's, a perfect setup for the polychoral style of these compositions. Opposing different ensembles (and styles) is also inherent to the organ, and a technique that can be found in many of Buxtehude's organ works.
Jens Korndörfer, Organ (Immaculate-Conception, Montréal - 10/10/2008
St. Mary's main organ, built by Jacob Scherer in 1561 and rebuilt by Friedrich Stellwagen in 1637-41, had 52 stops on three manuals and pedal. Following the tradition of the Werkprinzip predominant in North Germany at that time, each division contained its own plenum (based on a 32' Principal in the Pedal, 16' Principal in the Great, and 8' Principals in the Rückpositv and the Brust). As a matter of fact, the organ did not have any couplers at all: the different divisions could be used independently and were not addedto each other, but rather opposed to each other—very much like different ensembles in polychoral music.
The pedal division, with 15 stops (the largest division of the entire instrument), contained both flues and reeds ranging from 32' to 2'! Clearly, it was capable of supporting the pedal line on its own without needing any help from manual divisions via pedal couplers!
A complete stoplist of the main organ of St. Mary's at the time of Buxtehude is available here.
Virtuosity, Counterpoint & Drama
The position as organist, the stunning instruments and the cultural life in Lübeck are the exterior conditions that enabled Buxtehude to compose his masterful preludes. The North German Organ School, which had reached its apex during his time, provided him with the requisite compositional tools, most notably the Stylus Phantasticus and classical rhetoric (more about those in a future post).
The result are compositions that boldly showcase the high level of organ building and organ performance, a mastery of style(s), and an expert handling of space and time, inspired by the new genre of the opera—or, in Buxtehude's case, rather the sacred oratorio of the Abendmusiken.
The Praeludium in d is one of the most imaginative and gripping representatives of this golden period of organ music... and so much fun to play!