Music Dieterich Buxtehude
Markus Rathey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0107


Dieterich Buxtehude (b. c. 1637–d. 1707) was one of the leading German composers in the 17th century. During his lifetime he was already highly regarded as a composer and performer of organ music, as can be seen from both the wide dissemination of his music and the fact that Johann Sebastian Bach traveled to Lübeck in 1705–1706 to study with the famed organ master. Though he was mostly known as an organ composer, Buxtehude’s compositional legacy also includes a large number of vocal works as well as sonatas for string ensemble; the latter were even printed during the composer’s lifetime. Buxtehude was also influential as a musical entrepreneur. Having inherited the custom of public organ concertos from his predecessor, Franz Tunder, Buxtehude expanded these Abendmusiken (evening music) into a regular concert series. Due to Buxtehude’s fame as organist, the beginning of scholarly interest in the second half of the 19th century focused on his keyboard music, leading to a first edition by Philipp Spitta (who was also an influential Bach scholar) in 1875–1876 of Buxtehude’s then known organ works. Editions of his instrumental sonatas and some vocal works would follow over the next fifty years, but these works never reached the recognition of his keyboard music. The most important scholarly treatise on Buxtehude in these early years was a 1913 book by the French music historian André Pirro, who provided a comprehensive account of Buxtehude’s life and works that spanned more than five hundred pages. When the German publisher Ugrino embarked on an edition of Buxtehude’s works (especially his vocal pieces) in 1924, this project sparked a renewed interest in his compositions and led to a more frequent number of performances of his vocal works, as well as a mushrooming of scholarly essays on his life and work. Buxtehude scholarship saw a first peak in the 1950s and 1960s, with numerous studies on the sources for his music, the style of his works, and the religious underpinnings of his vocal compositions. This “peak” culminated in the publication of a thematic catalog of his works and a comprehensive bibliography. A new stage of scholarship was reached in the mid-1980s with Kerala J. Snyder’s Buxtehude biography, which summarized the state of more than one hundred years of research but also made new and significant contributions. During the same time, studies on Buxtehude’s sonatas appeared, which, for the first time, drew scholarly attention to the instrumental ensemble works; two collections of essays further added important details to our knowledge about the North German composer. In 1987 the first volume of Buxtehude’s Collected Works (edited by K. Snyder and others) appeared. It was a continuation of the Ugrino edition, which had ceased to appear in 1971 after eight volumes, and now presents the works of Buxtehude in a reliable scholarly edition. The (so far) last significant event in Buxtehude scholarship was the “Buxtehude year,” 2007, which saw the publication of a revised edition of Snyder’s Dieterich Buxtehude: Organist in Lübeck, as well as a number of conferences and published essays on all areas of Buxtehude’s life and works.

Life and Works

The most comprehensive and up-to-date account of Buxtehude’s life and works is Snyder 2007, which was first published in 1987. Snyder 2012, an article originally published in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, provides a short overview of his life and compositions. Also noteworthy is Pirro 1976, a remarkable scholarly accomplishment for its time (originally published in 1913). Even though several details and some of Pirro’s interpretations are outdated, a number of his remarks on the music are still valuable and very perceptive. Two smaller biographies, Moser 1957 and Friis 1945, summarize the state of Buxtehude scholarship in the 1940s and 1950s and accompany the revival of Buxtehude’s music after World War II. Besides providing insights into some of Buxtehude’s compositions, they also represent two strands of a national reading of the composer, with Moser emphasizing the Germanness of Buxtehude and Friies viewing him as a Danish composer.

  • Cantagrel, Gilles. Dietrich Buxtehude et la musique en Allemagne du Nord dans la seconde moitié du XVIIe siècle. Paris: Fayard, 2006.

    Not a scholarly biography but a well-written essay by an experienced performer of Buxtehude’s works. The book cannot replace Snyder’s magisterial monograph (Snyder 2007), but it contains fresh insights into Buxtehude’s music.

  • Friis, Niels. Diderik Buxtehude, den store Dansker: En biografi. Copenhagen: Nordlund, 1945.

    Short study of Buxtehude’s life and works, with a slightly nationalistic perspective (Buxtehude as Danish composer); however, some of the remarks on Buxtehude’s works are very perceptive.

  • Moser, Hans-Joachim. Dietrich Buxtehude: Der Mann und sein Werk. Edition Merseburger 1115. Berlin: Merseburger, 1957.

    A small and concise biography with brief remarks about selected compositions.

  • Pirro, André. Dietrich Buxtehude. Geneva, Switzerland: Minkoff, 1976.

    The first large-scale scholarly biography of Buxtehude; mostly of historical value. Originally published in 1913.

  • Snyder, Kerala J. “Buxtehude, Dieterich.” In the new Grove Music Online. Edited by Deane Root. 2012.

    The article, written by the leading Buxtehude scholar, provides a reliable and up-to-date overview of Buxtehude’s life and works; the list of works corrects and complements some details in Karstädt 1985 (cited under Catalogs and Indexes). Originally published in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Available online by subscription only.

  • Snyder, Kerala J. Dieterich Buxtehude: Organist in Lübeck. Eastman Studies in Music 44. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2007.

    Snyder’s book (now in an updated and enlarged second edition, the first edition appeared in 1987) is the most up-to-date and comprehensive study of the life and works of Buxtehude. The book describes the stations of the composer’s life and gives an overview of his music, differentiated by genre. It also provides important information about sources, transmission, and performance practice. An appendix lists all compositions and their sources.

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