Puer natus in Bethlehem, BuxWV 217
by Dietrich Buxtehude [playing time 0:45]  [Download the MP3]

Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707)

Perhaps the most influential composer in Germany of his day, Buxtehude, who was of Danish origin, produced a body of organ works that profoundly influenced the development of writing for the instrument. As a youth, Bach himself traveled 200 miles on foot to see and hear Buxtehude, and the North German influence can be heard in the fantasia-like openings of a number of Bach's early organ works. Buxtehude spent most of his career as the organist at the Marienkirke in Lübeck.

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This is a brief chorale setting of the Christmas hymn Puer natus. The cantus firmus appears in the soprano, but of particular interest is the bass, which begins like this:

The bass begins with a wide rising leap followed by a rhythm of a dotted half note followed by three quarter notes. This motive appears throughout the chorale. I have uploaded this work because it is interesting to compare this setting with Bach's version from the Orgelbüchlein, BWV 603. The pedal in BWV 603 is shown below, and is pervaded by a rhythmic motive that strongly resembles Buxtehude's:

We know that Bach was deeply influenced by Buxtehude, an influence no doubt enhanced by Bach's trip from Arnstadt to Lübeck to hear the elder master in 1705 (a trip, by the way, that Bach extended beyond authorization, thus landing him in trouble with his Arnstadt employers). Is this work an example a direct propagation of a motive from Buxtehude into Bach's work? Buxtehude's use of the rhythmic motive above is nowhere near as steady as Bach's, but the resemblance is striking. Or perhaps, such a bass treatment is simply the optimum way to accompany the particular cantus firmus of this chorale, in which case we might have little doubt that as fine a composer as Buxtehude found it.

In the end, however, I have to acknowledge Bach's setting - isn't this almost always the case - as the finer. By shifting the rhythm forward a beat and subtly altering it, Bach achieves a miraculous syncopation that accompanies this Christmas hymn in a supremely joyful manner. As ingenious as Buxtehude's present setting may be, it rises not quite to that Bachian level.

(As an additional note of interest in this chorale setting, listen also for a canonic fragment of the hymn tune in the bass at 0:12, picked up in the soprano at 0:15.)

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