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The 19 organ Praeludia

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The 19 organ praeludia composed near the end of the 17th century form the heart of Buxtehude’s work and are ultimately considered some of his most important contributions to music literature of the seventeenth century. These compositions are sectional that alternate between free improvisatory sections and fugal sections, all make heavy use of pedal as well. Buxtehude’s preludes also represent the highest point in the north German organ prelude and the so-called stylus phantasticus, a style of early baroque music (Arnold, 2003). They were undoubtedly some of the strongest influences of J. S. Bach, whose organ preludes, toccatas and fugues, and all other organ compositions frequently use techniques very similar to Buxtehude. Buxtehude’s Prelude and Fugue in D Major (BuxWV 139) will be the piece out of the 19 organ praeludia that I will examine on a structural and harmonic level.

This piece begins with a D Major pattern that continues into an introductory episode in free form (mm. 1 through 20). The beginning section kicks off with arpeggiated D major chords from the two manuals, after which the pedals enter with their stronger sonorities to further enrich the musical canvas and the notes are in lively dialogue amid the increasingly lively, atmosphere of the piece. In the beginning section from (mm. 1 through 20), the harmonic rhythm is relatively slow. Typically, the harmony in this section stays within the key of D Major, reinforced with strong cadences at the end of long phrases. Buxtehude also adds unique harmonic color with occasional secondary dominants and an occasional deceptive cadence. This section is then immediately followed by a fugal portion, which typically comes in two related sections, or, as here, three. The contrapuntal texture in the fugal section is fairly thin. It’s subject, consisting only of six repeated notes, followed by an ornamented descending third, articulated by rests, meshes with a similar countersubject.

The large organ that Buxtehude played in St. Mary’s Church, Lübeck, contained fifty-four stops on three manuals and pedal keyboard. No one knows exactly how it was tuned during Buxtehude’s time, recent research suggests it may have been in mean-tone, a tuning in which the tonal realms that Buxtehude included in most of his praeludia would have been difficult to play (Koopman, 1991). Mean-tone temperament is a unique way of tuning instruments where the major third would be the same distance in pitch from the outer two pitches (such as the root and the fifth). This way of tuning is different from that of the equal temperament which is tuned by pure intervals (such as perfect fourths, and fifths), this way of tuning results in 12 semitones of equal size. The mean-tone system gives composers devices for creating expressive works that are uniquely tied to the temperament. For example, on quarter-comma mean tone tuning, there are two unusual sizes of half-step intervals (Porter, 1981). The interval of F to F# is small, and the interval between A and B-flat is larger. Special effects can be created by crafting a musical theme which ascends or descends through the scale chromatically, shifting back and forth between large and small minor seconds.

The use of a sharp accidental or flat accidental in the score can also bring a significant effect in the harmonic progression—harmonies which simply do not exist on a modern instrument tuned to equal temperament. The extensive use of chromatic pitches on a mean tone organ can give the composer or improviser tools for truly unusual, and shocking chord progressions, or ones that are strangely beautiful. All sources, including the earliest, Gottfried Lindeman’s copy of this score from 1714, present the piece in the key of D, and there is hardly any doubt that this was the original key. The modulations of the fugal section, as remote as to C# minor, and the dramatic modulations in (mm. 87 through 94) stretch the frame of mean-tone temperament. Though the section from (mm. 87 through 92) is definitely beyond noteworthy, it is the fugal entries in (mm. 47 through 49) F-sharp minor, and C-sharp minor, respectively—that are particularly baffling. Fugue subjects rarely enter in such distant keys before the eighteenth century, and even less frequently in the confines of a restrictive temperament.

As has come to be expected, the greatest discrepancies in tuning with regard to the music and meantone temperament occur in a free section. Perhaps these extreme occurrences could be covered with some creative registration or a tremolo. The subject entries in (mm.47 through 49) seem to defy the temperament, but if treated gracefully by the performer, it is possible that these pitches go by almost imperceptibly without offending the listener. The dissonances that occur were most likely intentionally musically expressive. Most recordings of this piece present a pleno (full organ) version of the work with the fugal section on a concerto registration and with the contrasting homophonic sections, similar to the texture of the toccatas, played on a Principal 8’ with tremulant.

Although we do not know where the limits of acceptable perceived dissonance lay in Buxtehude’s day, the approach with the Italian Principal registration makes the dissonances bearable and expressive to our ears. The sequential section (mm.70 through 86) is performed with all three manual divisions engaged and with the sixteenth-note figure soloed out. The unusual form of the Praeludium in D may also suggest that it was composed for a special event, or special time in the church calendar. A useful image may be that it reflects the Easter miracle; the fanfares of the opening and the repetitive theme of the fugal sections all exude joy and excitement. The only entry of the pedal in a Buxtehude Prelude with a trill may illustrate the dramatic moment of when the stone rolled away from the tomb. If so, the Adagio (mm. 62 through 69) could portray Christ on the cross, the sequential patterns illustrating the shivering earth and the tearing of the veil of the temple from the top to the bottom, the following dissonant chords the shock, fear and hesitation of his disciples, and the final repetitive pleno chords, the moment of the resurrection.

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