Johann Heinrich Buttstett, Part 1: His life and work

May 31, 2019

Scott Elsholz is director of music for Saint Brigid Catholic Church, Memphis, Tennessee. He received his Doctor of Music degree in organ performance/literature from the Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University, Bloomington, where he was an associate instructor in church music, and he received his Bachelor of Music and Master of Arts degrees in organ performance from Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, where he later served as an adjunct instructor of organ. He previously served as music director at the Church of the Nativity, Bartlett, Tennessee; Saint Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Memphis; and Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Plymouth, Michigan.

The city of Erfurt was, by the middle of the seventeenth century, the most important city in the central German heartland of Thuringia (Figure 1). With nearly 18,000 residents, Erfurt was the largest city in Thuringia and was the commercial and cultural capital of the region.1 Following the Thirty Years War and under the electoral archbishopric of Mainz, Erfurt became a uniquely ecumenical (i.e., bi-confessional) city, with nearly twenty percent of its residents worshipping as Roman Catholics. With such cultural and economic prominence and diversity, Erfurt drew some of the best musicians of the day to its churches and streets: members of the Bach family (including Johann Ambrosius, father of Johann Sebastian) were well-regarded as town musicians; Johann Pachelbel worked, taught, and composed the majority of his organ music here for over twelve years; and, of course, in the previous century, Martin Luther studied for six years at the University of Erfurt and became a monk in the Augustinian monastery. It was in this context that Johann Heinrich Buttstett spent nearly his entire life studying and practicing his art.

Members of the Buttstett family had lived for some time in the Erfurt region, as the name was quite common in city records at least a century prior to the birth of Johann Heinrich. Primarily toolmakers and furriers, the Buttstett clan belonged to the respectable craftsmen class, though the musician Buttstett’s father (also named Johann Heinrich) deviated from such trades to become a Protestant clergyman.

Beginning in 1664, the pastor Buttstett became a prominent clergyman in Bindersleben, a small village just outside Erfurt. He apparently also had a fair amount of knowledge of and love for pipe organs, as the Bindersleben community thanked him for his assistance in procuring an instrument for the parish.2 The musician Buttstett was born on April 25, 1666, and was the eldest of at least three sons and one daughter. The second son Georg Christophorus also joined the clergy (succeeding his father upon the latter’s death), while little is known of the third son Johann Jakob and daughter Anna Sabina. It is interesting to note that all of the sons would have attended the Ratsgymnasium in Bindersleben under the tutelage of David Adlung, whose son Jakob Adlung would eventually succeed the musician Buttstett after the latter’s death and who would become an influential music scholar and theorist.

It should be noted that there exist three possible spellings of Johann Heinrich’s family name. “Buttstedt” is quite common, as it is found in contemporaneous documents, most notably the composer’s contract at the Erfurt Predigerkirche, and was the spelling used by Ernst Ludwig Gerber in his Lexicon der Tonkünstler of 1790. “Buttstädt” was used by the musician’s father and also apparently by the composer himself in business correspondence bearing his signature (though no handwritten musical manuscripts are extant). This is the spelling preferred by the composer’s biographer Ernst Ziller. “Buttstett” is the most common variation found in academic literature, beginning with Johann Gottfried Walther’s
Musikalisches Lexicon (1732), and it is the spelling that was used on the title pages of Johann Heinrich’s publications.3

Little is known of the early years of Johann Heinrich Buttstett, but we do know that he studied for many years under Johann Pachelbel, most likely beginning around 1684 (though possibly as early as 1678), after successive outbreaks of the plague in Erfurt had subsided. Pachelbel was organist at the Erfurt Predigerkirche (Figure 2), considered to be the most prominent Protestant church in the entire city (i.e., the Ratskirche), and he gathered around him a large circle of students. In addition to Buttstett, Pachelbel taught Johann Christoph Bach (Johann Sebastian’s brother), Nikolaus Vetter, and Johann Valentin Eckelt, among many others. Pachelbel was considered one of the greatest composers and teachers of his generation, and a letter written by the Erfurt authorities in response to Pachelbel’s request to take his leave in 1690 attests to the level of great respect and appreciation the city had for this famous musician.4

Upon Pachelbel’s appointment as court organist in Stuttgart, he was succeeded for one year by Nikolaus Vetter. Following Vetter’s departure in 1691, Johann Heinrich Buttstett became the organist of the Predigerkirche on July 19 of that same year (Figure 3). Prior to his appointment at the Predigerkirche, Buttstett had served as organist at the smaller Reglerkirche from 1684 until 1687, and then as organist and teacher of Latin at the Kaufmannskirche and Kaufmannsschule. The former position was most likely part of an apprenticeship, while the larger Kaufmannskirche position can be considered his first full-time employment. Interestingly, beginning May 19, 1690, during his tenure at the Kaufmannskirche, Buttstett was already appointed to the Predigerkirche as a sort of Werkmeister.5 Similar to Dieterich Buxtehude’s dual roles as organist and Werkmeister at the Marienkirche in Lübeck, Buttstett was charged with collecting duties and maintaining the church’s financial books. Upon his appointment as organist of the Predigerkirche, Buttstett remained administrator and continued in both roles until his death.

The prestigious position at the Predigerkirche was multifaceted. The details of the position were remarkably prescribed in Pachelbel’s extant contract, dated June 19, 1678, and were restated in the Fundbuch of 1693, beginning with the title “Instruction for Mr. Joh. Heinr. Buttstedt as organist of the Predigerkirche.”

He [Pachelbel] was to precede the singing of a chorale by the congregation with a thematic prelude based on its melody, and he was to accompany the singing throughout the stanzas. The wording makes it clear that he was not to improvise the prelude but should diligently prepare it beforehand. It was also specified that every year on St. John the Baptist’s Day, 24 June, he was . . . obliged not only to submit to a re-examination, but also to demonstrate his vocational progress during the past year in a half-hour recital at the end of the afternoon service, using the entire resources of the organ ‘in delightful and euphonious harmony.’6

Further, like most of his contemporaries, Buttstett was required to maintain all organs and regals. He was responsible for playing two Sunday services at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., in addition to Saturday vespers and high feast days. However, it is clear that Buttstett did not serve as Kantor for the Predigerkirche. This role was filled by at least four different musicians during Buttstett’s long tenure in Erfurt. Thus, it is unlikely that Buttstett was actively involved in the musical education of choristers at the Predigerkirche, which is perhaps the reason so few choral works by Buttstett are extant. Finally, in his preface to “Ut, mi, sol . . .” Buttstett makes reference to his work for both Protestant and Catholic churches in Erfurt, but unfortunately, other than four extant Latin Masses, no other details of this ecumenical service are forthcoming.

Of Buttstett’s personal life, we know relatively little, but the few facts that are known are indeed interesting. As he held arguably the most prestigious position for a church musician in Erfurt, Buttstett was quickly and easily granted official citizenship to the city in 1693 and was named Ratsorganist. With citizenship came the right of beer ownership and admission to a prestigious shooting club, both of which surely must have brought the composer some measure of personal satisfaction. Still, in his published works, Buttstett often referred to the large Hauskreutz7 he had to bear and endure, perhaps referring to a home life frequented by death. He married Martha Lämmerhirt (second cousin to Elisabeth Lämmerhirt, the mother of Johann Sebastian Bach) on July 12, 1687, at the Erfurt Reglerkirche. Their oldest son Johann Laurentius was born in 1688, and they had at least six more boys and three girls, though it is assumed that many died quite young as there is no mention of four of the children beyond their birth records.8 Of his children, his eldest son applied for the Predigerkirche position upon his father’s death, though he was clearly outranked by Jakob Adlung. Johann Heinrich’s son Johann Samuel would eventually be the father of Franz Vollrath Buttstett, who would become a fairly successful organist and composer in the pre-Classical style of the mid-eighteenth century.9 Martha Lämmerhirt Buttstett died in 1711, and there is no record of Johann Heinrich Buttstett marrying again.

Like his teacher Johann Pachelbel, Buttstett gathered around himself a large group of students, the most famous of whom were Johann Gottfried Walther and Georg Friedrich Kauffmann. Walther includes a fascinating anecdote of Buttstett’s teaching methods in one of his letters to Heinrich Bokemeyer. Apparently, Buttstett was known for hoarding knowledge of musical invention and contrapuntal techniques and required his students to pay him twelve Thalers to have access to a treatise on double counterpoint in Buttstett’s library. Upon a down payment of six Thalers, Buttstett would only allow Walther to copy small portions of the treatise at a time. Not unlike the tale of J. S. Bach’s moonlight manuscript copying, Walther eventually bribed one of Buttstett’s sons to steal the treatise for one night, during which time Walther was able to copy it in its entirety.10 Walther and Kauffmann only studied with Buttstett for a short time, and this episode perhaps elucidates the reason for such an abbreviated period of study.

In his preface to the Musicalische Clavier=Kunst und Vorraths=Kammer,11 Buttstett stated that he had over one thousand compositions in manuscript that would someday be ready for publication. But, perhaps due to circumstances discussed below, after the Clavier=Kunst of 1713, he would not publish a single keyboard work, and most of his manuscript copies are certainly lost. Nevertheless, likely due to the number of students who may have copied his works and disseminated them throughout central Germany, many other compositions still exist and deserve some mention. Two free works, the Praeludium in G Major from the Clavier=Kunst and the remarkable “Tremolo”12 Fugue in E Minor, are included in the Andreas Bach Buch and were likely copied by Johann Christoph Bach.13 Of the free works, there also exist five additional fugues attributed to Buttstett (two of which are spurious) and one Prelude and Fugue. Also, as would be expected given the contractual requirements of his position at the Predigerkirche, a far greater number of chorale-based works have been preserved. Styles represented included cantus firmus chorales, chorale partitas (including verses reminiscent of J. S. Bach’s famous written-out accompaniment to In dulci jubilo, BWV 729), chorale fughettas, ornamented chorales, and figured chorales. Buttstett’s chorale-based works feature some of his finest and most concise writing, and he was undeniably influenced in his compositional forms and techniques by his teacher Pachelbel.

Buttstett’s fame, however, largely rests on a very public and protracted dispute with the great theorist and writer Johann Mattheson (Figure 4). In 1713, Mattheson published the first of a series of writings on music theory, aesthetics, rhetoric, history, and other varied topics, namely Das neu-eröffnete Orchestre. This three-part treatise, respectively dealing with musical nomenclature, compositional rules, and musical criticism, was one of the first to present the twenty-four major and minor keys as the basis for all contemporary musical composition. He derided previous authors, in particular Athanasius Kircher and his Musurgia universalis (1650), for their adherence to the ancient church modes in their writings, arguing that they often ignored actual compositional practice in their analyses. For instance, about Kircher’s apparent omission of C minor, he states:

It would be no idle curiosity to investigate whether it was by crass error or by a most profound ignorance that this most attractive key merited a place neither in the authentic, plagal, or transposed modes, nor even in the ecclesiastic or Gregorian tones. The stupidity of the ancients is hardly to be believed, much less excused.14

Throughout his discussion of the keys versus the modes, Mattheson continued to use such vitriol. Although Mattheson saw a place for the retention of the church modes, namely in sacred music, he considered them to be completely inappropriate for contemporary composition.

Mattheson’s work inspired much derision among conservative musicians, with the greatest critic being Johann Heinrich Buttstett. In ca. 1715, Buttstett published his complete repudiation of Mattheson’s theories in Ut, mi, sol, re, fa, la, tota musica et harmonia aeterna (Figure 5). On his ornately decorated frontispiece (ironically with symbolic representations of major and minor triads15), Buttstett states,

Ut, mi, sol, re, fa, la, the totality of music and eternal harmony, or newly published, old, true, sole, and eternal Foundation of Music, opposed to the Neu-eröffnete Orchestre, and divided into two parts, in which, and to be sure in the first part, the erroneous opinions of the author of the Orchestre with respect to tones or modes in music are refuted. In the second part, however, the true foundation of music is shown; Guidonian solmization is not only defended, but also shown to be of special use in the introduction of a fugal answer; lastly, it will also be maintained that someday everyone will make music in heaven with the same [solmization] syllables that are used here on earth.16

Essentially, Buttstett called for the return of compositional practices of the fifteenth century. He accepted the modes as the true basis of music composition and defended the use of hexachordal mutation using Guido d’Arezzo’s system of solmization. Further, he argued that Mattheson’s so-called keys were merely transpositions of only two modes, and that the sole differentiation of modes was based on the placement of the semitone mi-fa.17 Buttstett also argues against Mattheson’s tri-partite classification of musical style (e.g., Stylo Ecclesiastico, Stylo Theatrali, and Stylo Camerae), favoring Kircher’s rather cumbersome nine-part classification,18 and he derides composers who favor profitable “popular and accessible music” over the more intellectually demanding counterpoint.19 As George Buelow succinctly states, “In sum, he [Buttstett] believed that Mattheson was leading musicians to chaos by abandoning the rules of music which had been valid for more than 100 years.”20

Mattheson responded to Buttstett in 1717 with Das beschützte Orchestre, a “merciless satire of Buttstett’s opus.”21 The frontispiece depicts a tombstone for Guido d’Arezzo and the subtitle is a play on Buttstett’s own title: “Ut, Mi, Sol, Re, Fa, La—Todte [i.e., dead] (nicht Tota) Musica.” Citing Buttstett’s insistence on only one true semitone, Mattheson points out that Buttstett also mentions that there are simultaneously two and twelve semitones per octave, thus leading Mattheson to ask how there can all at once be one, two, and twelve of something. He goes on to accuse Buttstett of taking previous authors out of context and finally solicits the opinions of other leading musicians and scholars on the matter, most of whom take Mattheson’s side of the debate (the most notable exception being Johann Joseph Fux).

While Buttstett responded yet again in 1718, he was no match for the witty and intellectually superior Mattheson. Buttstett’s arguments were the last gasp of conservative German music theory, prominent especially among organists, in a battle that had been clearly won by a new theoretical and more cosmopolitan approach toward music composition.22

Following this debate, it is plausible that, in defeat, Buttstett had given up on his dream of publishing a multi-volume series of keyboard compositions. The only publication that remained to come from his pen was his Opera prima sacra of 1720, the aforementioned four Latin Masses. Thus, the ambitious project that had begun with the Musicalische Clavier=Kunst und Vorraths=Kammer was abandoned, and the vast majority of Buttstett’s keyboard music is likely forever lost.

One can only imagine what life was like for the aging Buttstett in his twilight years. Perhaps he was contented to continue his work as the Erfurt Ratsorganist. After all, Erfurt remained an important Thuringian city, and there is no indication that Buttstett was unable to perform his duties until his death on December 1, 1727. At least two of his sons outlived him, and it is likely he continued to teach and serve as a mentor to the next generation of organists. Still, after his death, Buttstett was largely forgotten. But even so, it is clear that, as his biographer Ernst Ziller states, “Buttstädt was a true Thuringian musician, very closely connected to his home town and its musical traditions, a deeply religious personality, a human being who lived for his music until the end of his days. Music was his life’s purpose and his calling from God.”23

To be continued.


1. Christoph Wolff, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (New York:
W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 2000), 15.

2. Ernst Ziller, Der Erfurter Organist Johann Heinrich Buttstädt (Berlin: Buchandlung des Waisenhauses G.m.b.H, 1935). Reprint, Beiträge zur Musikforschung, ed. Max Schneider, no. 3. (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 1971), 5.

3. Further, his grandson, the composer Franz Vollrath, used this spelling.

4. Suzy Schwenkedel, La tablature de Weimar: Johann Pachelbel et son école (Arras: Association Nationale de formation des organists liturgiques, 1993), 13.

5. A Werkmeister was responsible for managing the church’s financial accounts and is roughly equivalent to a modern-day bookkeeper.

6. Ewald V. Nolte and John Butt, “Pachelbel, Johann,” The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online, ed. Laura Macy, (accessed February 18, 2012).

7. Literally translated “House cross.” Exact meaning unclear but the speculation by Ziller is plausible.

8. Ziller, 12.

9. George J. Buelow, “Buttstett, Franz Vollrath,” The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online, ed. Laura Macy, (accessed February 24, 2012).

10. David Yearsley, “Alchemy and Counterpoint in an Age of Reason,” Journal of the American Musicological Society, 51:2 (Summer 1998), 214.

11. The “=” in the title was a convention of the German Fraktur typeface (the typographic style used for the title page and preface of the Clavierkunst) for compound words in titles, common from the sixteenth to early twentieth centuries.

12. Dietrich Bartel, Musica Poetica: Musical-Rhetorical Figures in German Baroque Music (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 427.

13. Christoph Bach and Buttstett both likely studied with Pachelbel concurrently.

14. Johann Mattheson, Das neu-eröffnete Orchestre (Hamburg: Schiller, 1713), 245, quoted in Joel Lester, Between Modes and Keys: German Theory, 1592–1802, Harmonologia, 3 (Stuyvesant: Pendragon, 1989), 116–7.

15. Walter Blackenburg, “Zum Titelbild von Johann Heinrich Buttstedts Schrift UT-MI-SOL-RE-FA-LA, tota Musica et Harmonia Aeterna (1716).” In Heinrich Sievers zum 70. Geburtstag, ed. Günter Katzenberger (Tutzing: Hans Schneider, 1978), 23.

16. Lester, 119.

17. Lester, 120.

18. Paul Collins, The Stylus Phantasticus and Free Keyboard Music of the North German Baroque (London: Ashgate, 2005), 24.

19. Yearsley, 215.

20. George J. Buelow, “Buttstett, Johann Heinrich,” The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online, ed. Laura Macy, (accessed February 24, 2012).

21. Lester, 121.

22. Buelow, “Buttstett, Johann Heinrich.”

23. Ziller, trans. Elke Kramer, adapt. Scott Elsholz, 22.

Photo caption: Erfurt in 1650.

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