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Book Review

Dieterich Buxtehude: Organist in Lübeck

Dieterich Buxtehude: Organist in Lübeck by Snyder
Kerala J. Snyder
University of Rochester Press, 2007. xxiv + 554 pp.
ISBN: 1-58046-253-7
ISBN-13: 978-1-58046-253-7
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Books like Dieterich Buxtehude: Organist in Lübeck gladden the heart at times when one worries generally for the state of the serious music publishing industry. Originally published over 20 years ago to co-incide with the 350th anniversary of Buxtehude's birth, Snyder received much praise at the time – and the Buxtehude prize from the City of Lübeck. Since then new original material has come to light; a new generation of performers and academics has continued to expose and explore the work of the most important composer in seventeenth century Germany; and publishing has advanced sufficiently for a CD of an hour and a quarter's music (16 items) to be included. A second edition of this authoritative volume was very much called for. It appeared recently in the "Eastman Studies in Music" series under the imprint of the enterprising University of Rochester Press. And it cannot be recommended too highly as the most comprehensive (indeed the definitive) study on Dieterich (spellings vary: Kerala Snyder explains [p. xv] how she standardized) Buxtehude available.

The first keyword is indeed "comprehensive". In almost 550 pages, Ms Snyder (Professor emerita of musicology at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester) has deftly assembled material on almost every conceivable topic of interest to the specialist lover of Buxtehude as well as anyone interested more generally in "early" music and the wider history of music. In addition to chapters on Denmark and northern Germany in Buxtehude's time, and on Lübeck and musical life at St. Mary's church in particular, the composer's vocal and instrumental compositions are considered in depth (about a third of the text). In the third part his music is examined in greater depth in terms of sources, chronology and performance practice. There are no areas relative to Buxtehude's life and works that aren't covered in Snyder's book. It's biography, commentary, companion, reference, guide; and highly authoritative interpretative study.

So there is breadth as well: the perspective that Snyder applies is highly appropriate and most welcome. Given his genius, the profundity and beauty of his musical output and his influence on contemporaries and composers and musicians in successive generations, Buxtehude is still undervalued. But Snyder's assessment is always measured and sober. Never gushing, she always nevertheless gives Buxtehude his due. She starts from the premise that Buxtehude can hold his own not only with others of his type and from his time, but with subsequent and preceding creators. On reading Dieterich Buxtehude: Organist in Lübeck one never feels anything other than that one has the latest, most expertly assembled and carefully sifted information, research and primary "evidence" on which Snyder has based her rich, colorful and profound assessments.

So Dieterich Buxtehude: Organist in Lübeck is a book that's both groundbreaking with masses of newly (and uniquely) assembled information which would deserve a place on any music lover's shelves for its all-inclusive treatment of this important subject alone. And a very mature book which is both easy to read, refer to and find information in; as well as one that gives you the feeling on every page of being in extraordinarily competent hands. From an author whose understanding of her subject is so extensive and extensively collated and scrutinized that her every judgement can be trusted.

Snyder's great skill is one which not only gathers and weighs the amazing amount of such encyclopedic data; but interprets it all so that the reader has as rounded a view of Buxtehude as is currently possible. The relevance to our widest appreciation of Baroque music (and beyond) of the information in which the book is so abundant is always to the fore. Such vision can only come from someone who is not only expert non nonpareil in her field, but who has sufficient experience of communicating it to those with next to none, some and extensive previous experience of Buxtehude's music and life.

The format is clean, open; the narrative is crisp; notes/references are clearly grouped at the end of the book. Yet it can also be used as a reference source, so well structured, laid out and indexed it is. There are six appendices: an exhaustive list of compositions; a useful, and revealing appendix on Buxtehude's writings, including up to half a dozen poems; the main sources of his works; a selection of contemporary texts; an inventory of manuscripts; and a catalog of the choral melodies which he set. Like everything else in the book, proof-reading has been superb and layout (readability, and accessibility) excellent. The book's text is supplemented by over 30 drawings, facsimiles, plans, photographs and other plates. Musical examples, of course, abound. Translations (from German and Latin) are set alongside the originals in columns… ease of use again.

The facts that enrich almost every page are always supported, referenced and – where necessary – glossed with creditable opposing views where there are any. Her attitude to Martin Geck's assertions on the degree of Buxtehude's attachment (and even possible affiliation with) Pietism, for example [pp 146-149], is balanced yet unambiguous, carefully worded and closely argued. Snyder adduces (meticulously referenced) sources in areas adjacent to her main topic with just the right amount of explanation and background at all such points in her treatment of these and literally hundreds of other such issues ranging from the minutiae of Buxtehude's music-making (the disposition of the balconies at St. Mary's [p 58], for example) to an overview of the composer's development stylistically [pp 362-3].

The qualities, then, of comprehensive treatment and coverage of all aspects of Buxtehude; authentic and rigorous appropriation of sources; maturity of interpretation; strength of judgement in presenting the whole and extremely high production standards make Dieterich Buxtehude: Organist in Lübeck an exemplary book of its kind. At US$75 it's about typically priced, though good new copies can be found online for half as much! If you're looking for a state-of-the-art study of a major musical figure, whose originality and technical brilliance are second to none, Dieterich Buxtehude: Organist in Lübeck cannot be recommended highly enough.

Copyright © 2009, Mark Sealey.

Trumpet