Easter 2024

31 August 2006
Buxtehude, Dieterich (1637-1707) - Nun lob mein Seel den Herren, BuxWV 212

Dieterich Buxtehude

I've been working a lot on the Nun lob mein Seel den Herren settings of Buxtehude this week, and one of them has caught my theological imagination.

The chorale's text is a metrical paraphrase of Psalm 103.

The paraphrase starts:

My soul, now bless thy Maker!
Let all within me bless His name

And BuxWV 212 may very well be based on this, as I will soon show.

I think the order here is important:

  1. My soul
  2. thy maker

It's always struck me that the score indicates a alternation between two keyboards, and hence two divisions, of the organ

  1. the "Ruckpositiv," and
  2. the "Organo."

A Ruckpositiv is a small-scale version main division of the organ (here called the Organo) that is situated behind the organist in a typical North German instrument. (It's that part of the organ that blocks the organist from view.)

In this type of organ construction size does matter; the Ruckpositiv is softer than the Organo.

So, here we are, a softer Ruckpositiv begins this piece. Buxtehude is setting up a kind of reverse echo. Soft, loud, soft, loud, etc.

And I think that he might be toying with the dichotomy of the soul and the Lord.

We know that Bach uses the Ruckpositiv to symbolize the incarnation (specifically thinking here of the logical manual change in the "St. Anne" Fugue in E-flat, BWV 552b), and we know that Bach studied with Buxtehude. So let's pretend that this concept came from Buxtehude.

So, then we can very gracefully conclude that Buxtehude portrays the human self in contrast with God. And there are some points I like about this.

First, and most importantly, God listens to our praise. The first Organo response is a direct quote of the beginning of the piece.

But the whole chorale prelude is not banal mimicry. Rather, a dialogue develops. It grows naturally, and is playful at times. The dialogue becomes increasingly sophisticated and connected as the piece goes on. As a performance practice, I think it's helpful to take this playfulness into account and carry it through into ornamentation, phrasing differences and other alterations to the score.

My soul, now bless thy maker.

To bless, is to praise.

To borrow a line from the Book of Common Prayer "We praise God, not to obtain anything, but because God's Being draws praise from us."

In this dramatic rendition, our first utterance, offered perhaps by the memory of God's deeds in the past, is answered loudly and triumphantly in the present, and then the dialogue continues in real time.

According to Buxtehude, praising God feels good because it is a dialogue. God hears, and he answers God. Praise is a type of prayer, and what is prayer if not the "practice of the presence of God?"

This joyful chorale prelude is Buxtehude's delightful invitation to celebrate God's glory.

Buxtehude current event tangent: Buxtehude was in the news today with the discovery of a Bach manuscript that dates before 1700.

"Nun" chorale current event tangent: Bach, apparently unaware of the concept of intellectual property, blatantly copied Buxtehude's "Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gmein." I don't know it, but we'll have to examine it for theological symbolism now, won't we?

Good thoughts today.

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