This domestic music scene by
Johannes Voorhout (1647–1723)
shows Dietrich Buxtehude playing a viol,
with Johann Adam Reinken at the harpsichord.

Both the place and the date of Diderik Buxtehude's birth are open to dispute, though it is now generally agreed that he was born in 1637 in Helsingborg, Skåne, at the time part of Denmark. His obituary, in the 1707 Nova literaria Maris Balthici, stated that "he recognized Denmark as his native country, whence he came to our region; he lived about 70 years". Others, however, claim that he was born at Oldesloe in the Duchy of Holstein, (now Germany), which at that time was a part of the Danish Monarchy. Later in his life he Germanized his name and began signing documents Dieterich Buxtehude.

Buxtehude was first and foremost an organist, beginning in Helsingborg (1657-1658), then at Elsinore (1660-1668), and last from 1668 at the Marienkirche in Lübeck. His post in the free Imperial city of Lübeck afforded him considerable latitude in his musical career and his autonomy was a model for the careers of later Baroque masters such as George Frideric Handel, Johann Mattheson, Georg Philipp Telemann and Johann Sebastian Bach. In 1673 he organized a series of evening musical performances known as Abendmusik, which attracted musicians from divers parts and remained a feature of the church until 1810.

In 1705, Bach traveled 200 miles from Arnstadt to hear the Abendmusik, meet the pre-eminent Lübeck organist, and hear him play. Buxtehude was old and ready to retire by the time he met both Bach and Handel. He was deeply impressed by the skills of both men to the extent that he offered his position in Lübeck to both Bach and Handel. But a condition of the post was that the organist who followed him must marry his eldest daughter, Anna Margareta. Both Bach and Handel turned the offer down.

Unfortunately, many of Buxtehude's musical works have been lost. The librettos for his oratorios, for example, survive, but none of their scores have survived, which is particularly unfortunate, because his German oratorios seem to be the model for later works by Bach and Telemann. Bach preserved some of Buxtehude's organ masterpieces, though, and the publication of two volumes of Buxtehude's chamber sonatas during his lifetime facilitated their transmission through the years. Additionally, a number of his cantatas, also used by other composers as models, have survived.

Buxtehude died in 1707. His dates indicate early baroque, and certainly as far as J S Bach and other German composers are concerned, Buxtehude exercised a considerable influence, especially in the field of organ music, both secular and chorale variations. Bach's earliest cantatas, eg 131 and 150, both show a marked influence of Buxtehude.

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