Buxtehude's Harpsichord Pieces and related conundrums

Today I was playing Buxtehude’s harpsichord works from the still common Hansen edition of 1941.
Before this edition, Buxtehude (1637-1707) was mainly known as a composer of excellent organ and church music.

Then the Ryge family in Denmark submitted to a local organist a book that had belonged to their ancestor Johan Christian Ryge (1688-1758), choirmaster at the Roskilde Cathedral. This was a German organ tablature bearing the name “Buxtehude”. Musical analysis provided the following conclusions:

1- Not only the tablature title but the music style was certainly in agreement with already-known Buxtehude works.
2- The music was entered into the Ryge book c1690 (although IMSLP gives it the 1712 date).
In 1941 the organist at the Roskilde Cathedral, Emilius Bangert, translated the German tablature into modern musical score and Hansen produced the well-known edition.

Over the decades, I have played these pieces many times. Some are of scarce value, other are real gems, such as the Suites I and V and the Aria with variations in a minor (brilliantly played in 1970 by Scott Ross in Paris into a private recording of which I posses a rare copy). The score provides some tantalising further clues:

3- Quite a few pieces are decidedly in the style of the ones composed by Louis Couperin (forget about the claim that he was not the author: this hypothesis has been disproved in a publication of mine) in the 1650s. This is consistent with Buxtehude’s harpsichord pieces having been produced in the composer’s youth c1660.

4- Another clue is the range used: by Louis Couperin’s time the French had moved onto the GG/BB short octave bass range. The Ryge book is systematically written for the C/E short octave bass range, including quite a few passages that cannot be played in the later fully chromatic instruments. This also suggests a composition date from Buxtehude’s youth, in the 1660s.

5- Temperament suggests a later date: with major thirds involving not only the customary Eb and G# but also D# and A# (the latter very rarely included in the split-sharps of 17th c. instruments), this suggests a peculiar variant of the “Early French” temperament (in Mersenne-Chaumont F#-A# is a dissonant third mistuned by 31 Cents, in François COuperin’s temperament it is a wolf with 41 Cents deviation) or probably a more circular temperament, of which the earlier 17th century examples are some Pachelbel works composed c.1680. This suggests a much later date, in the 1680s.

6- Finally, the Ryge book is dated not earlier than the 1690s: therefore, the tablature must be a copy of the original manuscripts by Buxtehude written at an earlier date.

I have been unable to find online more information about the above.
However, there are no less than 3 CD records on sale with these works.
Therefore, it is most likely that their booklets provide some scholarly opinion on the above matters.

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What question are you asking, exactly? I don;'t mean to obtuse, but it’s not clear to me. All your points seem very solid to me.

My question is whether anybody has any information that helps to elucidate the conundrums I have listed re the Ryge book: entitled as by Buxtehude, supposedly confirmed on the basis of style, yet with many pieces closely modelled on Louis Couperin, composing in the 2nd half of the 17th century for a C/E compass outmoded half a century earlier, and more.

CD booklet writers hopefully have unearthed more concrete information …

Andrew sent me one of the booklets, and I found I had excerpts from the book on Buxtehude by Kerala Snyder. Both sources, however, bear nothing new about the Ryge book, except the detail that, in spite of the book’s “Buxtehude” title, two of the suites were actually composed by his contemporary Lebègue in France: it is not clear which ones they are, but this may explain the similarity with Louis Couperin, which is found in only a handful of the 19 Suites in the book.

More difficult is to explain the Danish tradition of the book and the C/E bass short octave compass. These both suggest a composition date earlier to 1667, when Buxtehude moved to German lands to occupy the prestigious post of organist at St. Mary’s in Lübeck, where famously he was visited by the young J. S. Bach decades later.

If so however, it is difficult to understand the temperament issue. I have just finished going over the suites, and the last one includes details such as a major third G#-B#. This is simply not meantone, either modified or with split keys. Furthermore, there is no evidence whatsoever that (unlike Louis Couperin with his Pavane in f# minor and contacts with Froberger and indirectly with Frescobaldi) Buxtehude ever experimented with Equal Temperament (not practised at the time in the places where he lived) . The conclusion is that he was using in the Suites an early “Wohltemiperierte” system (of which the earliest known examples in Buxtehude’s life are pieces composed by Pachelbel in the 1680s).

And therefore we have again the contradiction that, let us note, is found in the music itself and is independent of Buxtehude’s authorship or the date they were entered in the Ryge book. We have a large collection of pieces composed with a pre-1650 compass C/E with a post-1680 temperament! There are two possible explanations, which sound both unlikely, although obviously one of them has to be true:

  1. There was in Denmark and (even more difficult) Northern Germany a remnant of small C/E harpsichords surviving up to the 1680s.

  2. There was in Denmark a (hitherto unknown and undocumented) earlier experimentation with circular temperaments (either E.T. or Good Temperaments).

Regarding the temperament, there are two other possible explanations for the presence of a major third G#–B#.

  1. If this was intended to be a consonant third, then on an instrument with split G#/Ab keys it could be rendered as Ab–C natural.
  2. But was it intended to be a consonant third? Perhaps it is a dominant on G# resolving on to a C# minor chord, in which case a dissonance would make musical sense, indeed, it would be rather effective. The key of C# minor is not uncommon in Baroque music.

If you could supply the context that would be helpful.

Hi Claudio,

There is a recent edition of the Buxtehude Keyboard Suites and Variations published by the Broude Trust in 2016, edited by Christoph Wolff. It is volume 18 of the Buxtehude Collected Works. There is an extensive 14-page introduction that discusses the various manuscript and published sources, including the Ryge Tablature Book. There is also a discussion of the similarities of BuxWV 229 to a suite by Lebègue, although Wolff finds the evidence insufficient to attribute the suite to Lebègue. There is also a discussion of the dating of works, of short octaves and temperaments.

This edition has been gifted to the American Musicological Society (AMS) by the Broude Trust, and at some point it will be available electronically to AMS members for free.

Bruce Garetz

Peter: indeed there is much more than the mentioned major third. Should go and check. However …

Bruce: thank you. At this point I believe what I should do first it to find a copy of the Broude 2016 edition!

Thank you both for your help! :slight_smile:

Hi, Claudio (and everybody).
There’s a mediocre scan of the Buxtehude vol 18 introductory material here:

(I spent some time trying to mail it, but it’s too big.)


Just for people’s info, using the web interface you can upload PDF’s here up to 40MB in size. [I can up that limit if there is need.] Using email has its limitations, not caused by Discourse.

Thanks a lot Stuart! WIll write again once I have digested it! :slight_smile:

Hi Stuart again: just read Wolff’s 23-pages introduction:
A very interesting of sources and style indeed!
It is certainly very useful to know that Buxtehude Suites Ryge VIII and XVI are by Lebègue.
However, this does not invalidate my previous comment on the similarity of style with Louis Couperin, which I based on other suites actually.
On the contrary, seen Lebègue copied together with Buxtehude in Denmark actually confirms that, in the 2nd half of the 17th century Danish musicians were conversant with then French harpsichord style, and Wolff acknowledges this explicitly.

I am a bit surprised by Wolff’s assertion on p. xviii that “Most keyboards prior to 1700 … had a compass covering four octaves (C-c’‘’) with a so-called short octave”. I guess he just he failed to clarify that his assertion was specific for the German-Scandinavian instruments he referred to in a previous paragraph. Actually French composers such as Louis Couperin were writing for the significant bass increased range from GG/BB with short octave, half a century earlier.

Also surprisingly, Wolff does not mention the importance of Buxtehude writing for a circular temperament, a fact that reinforces the conclusion (hitherto only based on a few pieces by Pachelbel) that circular temperaments were in use in German lands well before Werckmeister wrote about them.

I do not see why the temperament question here is any different from in Louis Couperin or Froberger… There is also no evidence of any connection of those two composers with a hypothetical practice of ‘equal’ temperament. Their pieces all work fine in modified meantone and become extremely dull, not to say unmusical, in equal. The way the F# minor Pavane is composed, the way it uses or doesn’t use major thirds (as well as the B minor suite), shows that L. Couperin did not approach these keys in the same way as the ‘usual’ minors.

Similarly, this isolated G#-B# is in first inversion (B# in the bass) - which already makes it aurally much more acceptable - and functions as secondary dominant to F# minor as a fleeting episode in the A major suite’s Gigue. There is no more than a fraction of a second where the tonality passes through C# minor (on its way back to A). Musically, as LU Mortensen has shown, it also works fine with modified (ie with the wolf fifth removed) meantone.

(I cannot really see how these suites are ‘in the style of’ L Couperin in any case … at least they seem to have more Italian elements probably filtered through N Germany - Weckmann, Reincken …)

"in Louis Couperin or Froberger… There is also no evidence of any connection of those two composers with a hypothetical practice of ‘equal’ temperament. "
I beg to disagree, and I invoke the authority of Barbieri’s research for this. Read his works on the practice of ET in Rome precisely around the years Frescobaldi was there teaching Froberger, who shortly afterwards moved to Paris and arguably was in contact with Louis Couperin. This is further substantiated in my UT book.

After this ET usage in Rome, limited to a few composers in a few years, and as a consequence very likely in Paris Froberger+Louis Couperin, for decades there is no other circular music around, until in the 1680s we have Pachelbel (and now also Buxtehude) in German lands (not France or Italy) and circular (not ET).

From my side, and honouring my promise to Barbieri not to discuss my UT book online, this is my end of yet another temperament discussion. Apologise for having started it. I was looking for information, not opposition.
Needless to say, you are perfectly free to disagree with Barbieri and with me, and to show where and how we are wrong.
It’s just that I will hereby end (once more) this intervention of mine about temperament.
Mea culpa.

Will non-members be able to download it for a fee? The hardbound printed edition is expensive.

Download what? There are several publications discussed here.

Dear Claudio,

The main objective of this discussion was not to revisit the well trodden path of what Frescobaldi did or didn’t do with harpsichord tuning, but rather to consider the range of tonality in the Buxtehude suites in a similar musical context to Louis Couperin’s and Froberger’s transmitted compositions.

It seems clear to me that the G#-B# interval (heard in inversion), in musical context, need not be consonant in the sense of anywhere near to 5:4 or 8:5. And much more generally, the suites seem to work perfectly well in modified meantone, as long as ‘wolf’ fifths are smoothed out.

So, at least from internal musical evidence there is no necessary connection of these works with ‘good’ temperaments.

(Buxtehude’s vocal works might though lead us in another direction for keyboard tuning …)