Bless me, readers, for I keep sinning. In addition to being a church organist, caretaker of a tradition most people ignore, aficionado of music for which few people care, I compound my recklessness by being a scholar. Sort of.
Actually, I really just dabble in the stuff. When my advisor asked whether I might consider a PhD in musicology I was nearly finished with the DMA and wasn't particularly interested in starting another terminal degree, particularly when I was getting old enough that it might really be terminal. So I am still a rank amateur. But I have the effrontery to consider that knowing things about the notes on the page before you besides what the score by itself can tell you is not a bad thing. Horrors!
The other day I got around to a little piece by Buxtehude I had wanted to play 18 months ago when it didn't make it past the crush of other things I was doing at the time. I remembered it, dusted it off and made a little recording of it which I'll have to share with you next week when I get around to doing all the little things you have to do with a recording to be able to post it. As I played, a little question kept nagging at me. It's a question you have to know something about music history to ask, otherwise it might never bother you at all--bother, or fascinate.
The piece is a chorale prelude called "Auf meinen lieben Gott" and the reason it is odd is that it is written in the form of a dance suite. There are five parts, and the first is an allemande, the second a double, the third a sarabande, the fourth a courante, and the last a gigue. It is a clever way of writing five variations on a tune, but if you know something about attitudes in church music several centuries ago (and even today) there is one big disconnect here.
Reams of paper, forests of trees, were spent in the effort to shun such an expression by clergy and church leaders in nearly every century between the first and the last. The consensus was that dancing was just something completely inappropriate for church--sinful, worldly, undignified, and so on (dancing's reputation hadn't really improved much since some rapscallion named David tried doing it in front of the altar of the Lord and got reproved for it by my namesake) and music for church should NEVER EVER EVER suggest such a low thing as a dance.
Which makes it look like Mr. Buxtehude is committing a musical sin of the first order.
So I went looking for a reason.
Oddly enough, the last time I wrote on this blog about a scholarly pursuit based on organ literature, a fellow named Sweelinck actually spent a few measures of one of his hymn settings imitating a dance, and the reason seems to have been (according to a video I saw) that the words at that point have to do with a plea to keep us from temptation, and Sweelinck's idea was that dancing represented worldly temptation.
Here, though, the entire hymn was a series of dances. So I went to the google with my grave question. It is no longer necessary to climb a tall mountain and wait for the master to appear before presenting your question to him. The Google has come to the lowlands as well. And what the gGoogle found for me was an article with this interesting title "Buxtehude and the Dance of Death." That was the part before the colon, which is required in all academic articles. The catchy part comes first, then after the colon you have to explain your little joke so that it will be clear exactly what you are writing about, something that only becomes clear once you have drained the humor out of it. After the colon what I found was "The Chorale Partita 'Auf meinen lieben Gott' (BUXWV 179) and the Ars Morendi in the 17th Century." by Dr. Markus Rathey from Yale. The line about death wasn't bad, though. If the author couldn't get the word sex in the title at least he managed a close second.
So I gave the article a quick read. There were a number of fascinating details in it; the author, like myself, wanted to know why Buxtehude would treat a hymn this way when the dance was clearly off limits for liturgical music, and, in particular, he wondered why the composer had done this with this particular hymn, unique in his entire known writings.
I can't say that, in the end, he answered the question entirely to my satisfaction. Like most historians (social historians in particular) he seemed more interested in trends than in individuals. When confronted by a particular issue, the first thing a historian does is to look for all the other examples which may have influenced or been influenced by that particular, and so dwarf the present example in an avalanche of similarities. This was both interesting and frustrating, because on the one hand it revealed a good number of examples of a kind of literature of which I knew next to nothing; namely, other hymn settings which were treated something like dance suites (though not the full way), and on the other hand it dodged the issue, which was why Buxtehude did what he did. Unless the answer was really that everyone else was doing it and it just seemed like a good idea. Which would really knock down Buxtehude a peg or two, in my opinion.
And it really doesn't account for the uniqueness of the treatment or say why he might have chosen it in this particular case. I am back to assuming that Buxtehude was a smart fellow and he thought about what he was doing and why, more than the average American teenager.
Of course, part of the reason for the author's approach was that he really couldn't with any certainty answer the particular question. Little enough is known about Buxtehude's life to start with, never mind about individual decisions he might have made about a single piece of music.
Nonetheless, there were some tantalizing possibilities, and this is where the death part comes in. The hymn tune "Auf meinen lieben Gott" (In my beloved God I trust in anxiety and trouble) was often played at funerals. It would therefore have been associated with death. Fine, you are thinking. What on earth does dancing have to do with that? well at least it makes a great title--the dance of death. It got me to read it, anyway.
In Buxtehude's church, where Buxtehude would have seen it often, because it was close to the organ, was a large painting of the figure of death, dancing with all castes of society. Thus the dance of death. The author considers, but ultimately dismisses the connection, however, because there is no evidence that Buxtehude tried to work in the number of dancers into the structural scheme of the work. What he did do, however, was to write one variation for each of the hymn's five stanzas. And he reordered the normal flow of dances so that the slow sarabande came during the third verse, which was the climax of the hymn (for to live is Christ and to die is gain), and could thus be highlighted.
Otherwise, the order is intact, and the character of the hymn allows for this ingenious transformation rather easily. For instance, a repeated note at the beginning which is a perfect pickup to begin each section of a typical dance suite. My cousin Marteau, who enjoys hymn tune transformations of this sort, was intrigued by this thought.
This was, as Mr. Rathey pointed out, the tip of a large iceberg. The tradition of hymn tunes as dances was a bit larger than many of us knew, but more importantly, the tradition of playing hymns at home was enormous. And that, he suggests, is really the occasion for which this piece was made. Not for the organ but the harpsichord, and not for the church but the home. Thus preserving the separation of church and dance.
Which means I would commit a sin against Buxtehude and his century's sense of order if I play it in church in a week or two. I still plan to. And I've added a third layer to the death and dance conundrum by making this a tour of interesting organ registrations. We're having ours refurbished this summer and it would be a good time to education the congregation about the instrument and stimulate appreciation for this amazing instrument. Even if it means the organ has to dance a bit.
It may cause Buxtehude to spin in his grave. But by now he probably needs the exercise.