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Trio Sonatas of Dieterich Buxtehude—Stylistic Traits

October 22, 2007

Olga Savitskaya was born in Minsk (Belarus) and earned a Ph.D. with a specialty in musicology at the Belarusian State Conservatory, where she is now assistant professor and music theory chair. A member of the Belarusian Union of Composers, she lectures on harmony, form and analysis, and polyphony. Her research interests include instrumental music of baroque period, Belarusian symphonic music, and modern composition techniques. Her publications include many books and articles.

The end of the 17th century through the beginning of the 18th century was a period of development for the trio sonata and its two varieties: sonata da chiesa and sonata da camera. Being formed in the works of Corelli, “the typical form of a church sonata of four contrasting parts: Grave (homophonic or imitative, C), Allegro (treated fugally, C), Adagio (homophonic, 3/2), Allegro or Presto (treated fugally or homophonic, C or 3/2)”1 appeared to be one of the most universal and flexible formulas of musical-logical development of the large instrumental concept in the baroque period. Influenced by the principles of the cyclic organization of the church sonata, the structure of the violin solo sonata and the concerto grosso evolved. Thus, the musical-historical phenomenon of the church sonata appears in the combination of two aspects: 1) as a genre during the 17th and early 18th centuries, moving from the bounds of church music into the sphere of secular concert music; 2) as a type of the baroque large instrumental form whose organizational principles (primarily crystallized in the genre of a church trio sonata) were adapted and developed at the end of the 17th century through the first half of the 18th century.
The highest achievements in this sonata form are connected to the prominent masters—Corelli, Purcell, Couperin, Biber, Buxtehude, Bach, and Handel, etc.—whose works in many aspects have defined both the character of the baroque era as a whole, and the national and regional schools that developed in this period. The Italian sonata, embodied in the sonatas of Corelli, undoubtedly had a great influence on composers throughout Europe. But much more notable is finding the “national appearance” of the sonata in England, France, and Germany.
One of the high points in the history of this genre is seen in the 14 trio sonatas for violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord of Dieterich Buxtehude, which were quite original when they were published in 1696.
The main features of Buxtehude’s sonatas are their general structure and non-specific number of movements, from three to seven. The sonata movements are mainly differentiated by tempo, style and degree of independence. The fantasy style of composition abounds in unexpected changes of rhythm, contrasted with strict fugues, improvisational interludes, and juxtapositions of different manners of writing. And though the contrast of polyphony and homophony as one of the basic traits of the sonata da chiesa retains its significance, fugues do not always take the central place. All this testifies to the fact that trio sonatas by Buxtehude are oriented not so much to the Corelli pattern, but to the German tradition of violin writing, where the principle of free thematic development and improvisational character of performing fuses with compositional techniques.
The fugues included in each of Buxtehude’s 14 sonatas are very different, ingenious, and exhibit the individual style of the composer, as well as a definite stage of evolution of this polyphonic form prior to the art of Bach.
The instrumental ensemble fugues reveal one of the bright sides of the complex, many-sided Buxtehude fugal style, which includes also his organ and vocal compositions. As V. Protopopov noted, their typical features are “vividness of themes, ease of motion, and a lack of concentrated philosophical musical images . . .”2 As a rule, the fugal subjects of trio sonatas are rather extensive, intonationally expressive, and based on the structure of core-development. The elements of dance music and style-intonation figures representing performing technique of stringed instruments give a special shape to them.
Two-voice fugues predominate, where the theme is expressed by solo instruments; the basso continuo functions as accompaniment (op. 1: no. 1 Presto, no. 3 Allegro, no. 5 Vivace, no. 6 Allegro; op. 2: no. 2 Allegro, no. 4 Allegro I, no. 5 Allegro I). However, three-voice fugues in which the harpsichord participates in concertante alongside the two soloists (op. 1: no. 1 Allegro; op. 2: no. 2 Vivace, no. 6 Vivace, Poco Presto, no. 7 Allegro) are also frequently used. In some cases three-voice fugues are used only in the exposition, subsequently replaced by two-voice fugues with accompaniment (op. 2: no. 1 Allegro).
According to the tradition of pre-Bach fugues, in Buxtehude’s trio sonatas the tonic-dominant alternation of subjects is mainly a result of the interchange of expositions and counter-expositions that becomes the basic structural characteristic. However, even in rather small and “simple” fugues, expansion of the texture and attention to the architectonical aspect of composition is obvious. An essential role belongs to episodes.
As an example we shall give the scheme of the three-voice fugue of the Sonata in F Major, op. 2, no. 7, Allegro I (Example 1). At the same time in trio sonatas of Buxtehude, fugues having two or three parts are also frequent. Such are the two-voice fugues of sonatas in C Major (op. 1, no. 5), E Minor (op. 1, no. 7), and A Minor (op. 1, no. 3).
All these examples show a definite development: from a fugue as the combination of expositions and counter-expositions by means of episodes to three-part fugue with functional differentiation of sections and exceeding the limits of tonic-dominant relations through modulation. Such development, which looks forward toward Bach’s fugues (especially chamber-instrumental), is not, however, the single one for Buxtehude.
The unrestrained imagination of the baroque artist and the aspiration to the new and unusual are manifested also in the interpretation of a fugue, resulting in expansion and complication of its structure and assimilation of the elements of other genres and forms. The structure and organizational logic of these Buxtehude fugues are not repeated, but as a whole one can see a similarity to his organ works, the successive line from which leads to grandiose Bach organ fugues. Let us examine specific examples.

Sonata in G Major (op. 1, no. 2)
Its structure emphasizes a cyclic three-part form, while the weakened role of polyphony and significant role of dance themes testify to the effect of an instrumental concerto. The principle of composition “in mixto genere” (in a mixed form) is in part I, the result of synthesis of two forms: a complex double fugue with a joint exposition and the concerto form.
Lively dance themes do not contrast but supplement each other in free development when complementary rhythms underline the linear independence of the voices, with homophonic duplication of the melodic motives in tenths and thirds. Development of themes in exposition and counter-exposition, which constitute a fugue itself, is divided by the episodes based on the new material in the manner of the homophonic ritornellos of the violin concerto. (Example 2)
In essence, in this work, and in the entire cycle, not only interaction of various musical forms takes place but also the more complicated synthesis of “the old” and “the new” genres: the church sonata, which has reached its full maturity, and the young instrumental concerto, which rapidly developed in Europe at the end of the 17th century.

Sonata in B Major (op. 1, no. 4)
Another combination features the interaction of a fugue and basso ostinato. In the Sonata in B Major (op. 1, no. 4) the element of ostinato seems “to be splashed out” outside of 32 variations of part I by subordinating a final fugue. In its middle section Buxtehude, being the master of musical rhetoric, specially combines two principles of organization—fugue and ostinato. At first the brief fugal subject is stated by the solo instruments. Then it dissolves in figurations, and its function in the thematic process temporarily transfers to the basso ostinato. The final section again affirms the fugue, but a reminiscence of the basso ostinato returns in the last bars of the coda.
The ostinato principle takes a special place in Buxtehude’s compositional technique. The German master’s adherence to ostinato seems to be consistent even against the background of its pervasive occurrence in music of the 17th century (perhaps only Purcell can be compared with him in this respect). Buxtehude makes use of basso ostinato in organ compositions: Chaconnes in C Minor (BuxWV 159), E Minor (BuxWV 160), Passacaglia in D Minor (BuxWV 161), Preludes in C Major (BuxWV 137) and G Minor (BuxWV 149); and in the cantatas Jesu dulcis memoria (BuxWV 57), Laudate pueri (BuxWV 69), Liebster, meine Seele saget (BuxWV 70), etc.
In the 14 trio sonatas, basso ostinato is almost as necessary as fugue (the ostinato is absent only in two sonatas). Its various forms can be divided into two groups—the less numerous so-called arias for basso-ostinato (Strophenbas arie), and the basic group, consisting of basso-ostinato forms of passacaglia type.
Basso ostinato is employed in lively (op. 2, no. 3 Vivace) and slow (op. 2, no. 3 Andante), outside (op. 2, no. 6 Allegro) and middle (op. 1, no. 1 Andante) movements. In some sonatas (op. 1, no. 4; op. 2, no. 5), the basso ostinato principle appears to be the predominant compositional idea and is implemented under different tempo and texture conditions.
A variety of basso ostinato uses derives from the character and structure of ostinato themes and the whole ostinato layer of basso continuo, thematic peculiarities of the high voices, structural-semantic interaction of the ostinato and upper voices, and, lastly, inclination to this or that type of composition—closed, precisely structured or free, and contrasting-compound.
At the same time all of these serve as the concentrated expression of the musical thinking of the composer. Thus, a fugue and a basso ostinato are the dominant constants of Buxtehude’s trio sonatas. The presence of a fugue is proof of observance of the major genre standards of sonata da chiesa, whereas the constancy and skilfulness of use of basso ostinato in the greater extent reflect the individual principles typical of Buxtehude’s style, which was based on the North-German tradition.

Other elements in Buxtehude’s trio sonatas
Other movements illustrate an extremely wide spectrum of genre, composition, and textural-timbral combinations. It is difficult and hardly reasonable to generalize the principles of cyclic organization in Buxtehude’s sonatas. The architectonics of any of them do not repeat exactly in any other, and each composition demands analysis of its individual logic. Besides a fugue and ostinato variations, these are small, without reprise, strophic, general and mixed forms. Among genre prototypes and patterns one finds the jig, chaconne, “echo,” chorale prelude, dialogue, toccata, “signal trumpet,” etc. The “formulas of imagination” acquire special significance, these indispensable attributes of improvisational style—passages, recitatives, arpeggio—creating, according to M. Lobanova, the “illusory, imaginary disorder” or the “intense pathetic development.”3 The sonatas combine genres, styles, affects and rhetorical figures.
In this “game of senses” the important role belongs to the thematic ties within the cycle. Strictly speaking, such ties characterize the sonata da chiesa, with its origins in the mono-thematic, multi-part canzona. But that sequence and ingenuity with which the thematic unity is realized in the sonatas of Buxtehude testifies that its role by no means is restricted to ensuring formal compositional integrity but acquires a distinct symbolic sense. Here it is reasonable to appeal to one of the central concepts of the baroque poetics being defined as the “witty conception.” The delicate, veiled differentiation of the themes in different parts of the cycle acts as a manifestation of baroque “wit,” whose purpose seems to display the obvious or hidden similarity, in what seemed to be on the surface, completely unrelated.

Sonata in C Major (op. 1, no. 5)
One of the instances is the Sonata in C Major, op. 1, no. 5. In this four-part cycle the first and the final fugues symmetrically frame the contrasting middle parts—an aria of a solo violin with a bass, and an ensemble jig (Vivace–Violino Solo; Allegro–Largo; Allegro–Adagio; Allegro).
Fugues are connected tonally. The source of their common material is the initial subject. Their motives and submotives, like the elements of a mosaic, are easily combined and rearranged to form new thematic configurations. The initial sections and the end of the final fugue are especially distinguished, serving to express a rhetorical idea of “connection,” the “concatenation” known under the name of symploce, or repetition (see Example 3).
The middle parts are also connected thematically: the motive of the second strophe of the aria with bass is unexpectedly “recalled” in the theme Allegro (Example 4). Finally, all thematic material of the sonata reveals as its basis a uniform intonational pulse, active, exclamatory (exclamatio) fourth (fifth) interval motion, a sort of the “intonational monad” as an indivisible core encompassing the whole world in it.

Sonata in A Minor (op. 1, no. 3)
The other example of thematic ties is found in the Sonata in A minor, op. 1, no. 3. The general idea is disclosed gradually, from movement to movement, revealing a semantic potential concealed within it.
In the melodic lines of the Adagio gradual downward motion (f-e-d-c-b-a-g#-a) covering a diatonic hexachord with adjoining introductory material is “summarized” by compact expressive formula saltus duriusculus (f-g#-a) (see Example 5a). Both elements are marked also in the themes of the Allegro: in the capacity of one of the motives of the fugue subject (hexachord by parallel sixths) and as the hidden voice of counter-subject (f-e-d-c-g#-a) (Example 5b). Further, the diatonic hexachord (including that which has been expressed by parallel sixths) becomes the thematic basis of the Vivace. Supplemented up to heptatonic, it is continuously exhibited in different voices, like a migrating cantus firmus in a chorale prelude (similar to its textual coincidence with the final phrase of Buxtehude’s organ chorale variations Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BuxWV 223) (Example 5c). Descending scale-like motion is retained in the finale (Presto), but already against a background, not in the parts of melodic instruments but in the basso continuo. The most characteristic baroque style figure—passus duriusculus, appearing in slow modulation binding sections (Lento, Largo) as ascending and descending pieces of a chromatic scale—is brought to the forefront. Only in the final Lento is the semantic orientation of the general thematic process “explained.” The descending chromatic motion, trebled by imitations that embrace all verticals of the ensemble compass and saturated with rhetorical figures of grief (catabasis, passus duriusculus, catachresis, parrhesia), closes the sonata. (Example 5d)

Dieterich Buxtehude’s trio sonatas are among the high points in the history of the genre. Standing out against the background of the rich tradition of ensemble music at the end of the 17th–beginning of the 18th century, they testify to the exclusive originality of the North German model of the baroque sonata. Created in the period of, probably, the greatest “purity” of the style, the sonatas of Buxtehude embody the baroque world image itself—which has lost its Renaissance integrity, being woven of “incongruous combinations” of contrasts opening into infinity by the kaleidoscopic unsteadiness of existence and at the same time blessed by the supreme harmony of all-reconciling unanimity. ■