Dieterich Buxtehude, Music, & the Experience of Life (Michael De Sapio, February 5th, 2024, Imaginative Conservative)

“Classical music” is itself a fairly recent concept, going back no further than the early Romantic period, and the formation of a distinct canon of works associated with the term was the work of the 19th and 20th centuries. “Classical music” would have been an entirely foreign concept to, say, Johann Sebastian Bach. For him, music was now, and he had to supply a constant demand of it for the functions of everyday life. The idea of creating art for posterity was characteristic of Romanticism. In Bach’s era the idea was for an artist to do a good job, to be a faithful servant, in the here and now.

And in Bach’s day, music was something to be done, not thought about. Music lovers did not spend hours debating how violinist X and violinist Y played executed a trill differently. They were too busy actually making music.

And music was everywhere. In church, in the village square, in elegant salons of the noblemen. Music for courtly dancing; music for theatrical performances: opera, plays, ballets. Real music, performed by live human beings. Music was experiential to a degree we can scarcely imagine today, when recordings have “frozen” the art form, making it something more like painting or architecture. (And yet recording has its own virtues, allowing us to preserve ideals of performance for reference, enjoyment, and study, to diffuse music widely and allow it to “last longer”—to some extent overcoming its limited and ephemeral nature. This too is a great good.)

We see Bach as the beginning of the Common Practice Period. This is the period that constitutes the mainstream “classical music” repertoire, and it includes the great Germanic line of composers from Bach and Handel through Bach’s sons, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven (the Viennese Classicists), and on through Schubert and the German Romantics.

Anything before Bach is typically classed as “early music” and is a somewhat specialized field of interest. This is unfortunate, because there are many musical riches before Bach. Music is a continuing tradition, with each generation building upon the last. Bach’s genius and accomplishments were enormous, but they did not come out of a vacuum. He had an important early inspiration and mentor. His name was Dieterich Buxtehude.

What follows is a brief sketch of this pivotal yet all-too-little-known composer and musician. I wish to highlight in particular how he (like other artists of his day) made music a part of life. In this sense Buxtehude is an illustration of how music used to be enjoyed in a world very different from our own.