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Musicians know composer's 'Bach' story

The Wildwood Consort, a classical chamber ensemble, wants to bring audiences “Bach” to where he once belonged.

That’s right, the famed German composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, spent four months in Lübeck, in what is now Germany, where he studied with Dieterich Buxtehude (pronounced “Bucks-ta-huda”).

Bach’s teacher was as famous in his time as Bach later became in his, says Michael Wilhite, the Consort’s viola da gamba (bowed string instrument) player.

“Buxtehude is largely overshadowed by Bach,” Wilhite says. “Over the centuries, (Buxtehude’s) organ music continued to be played, but a lot of his other music that we’ll be presenting was lost until the 20th century.”

The Wildwood Consort likes to “unearth unusual composers and play music that is not played in concerts,” Wilhite says, and Buxtehude fits that bill.

The ensemble will perform nine vocal and instrumental pieces by Buxtehude during a 3 p.m. concert Sunday, April 28, at St. Aidan Episcopal Church, 17405 N.E. Glisan St.

Along with Wilhite, the Wildwood Consort will feature soprano Melanie Downie Robinson; Everett Redburn on lute and theorbo (plucked stringed instrument); Leslie Hirsch, from St. Aidan, on violin; and Mark Jones (organist and choirmaster at St. Aidan) at the harpsichord and positive organ.

Portland premiere

Wilhite is not sure, but he believes this might be the first time a concert devoted completely to Buxtehude’s work will be presented in the Portland area.

“I think some people will be surprised how modern this music sounds,” he says.

Buxtehude, who lived from around 1637 to 1707, employed a technique called basso ostinato, a repeating bass line, that is also characteristic of rock ‘n’ roll, Wilhite says.

“You have a driving bass line and above it you have stringed instruments,” he says. “It sounds very improvisatory.”

Composers like Buxtehude were indulging in some “interesting trends at that time,” he adds, exemplified by “stylus phantasticus” or “fantastic style.”

“It consisted of a lot of unexpected sounds with sudden changes in the texture of the music,” Wilhite says. “Mainly you hear a lot of this in the organ music. It’s a whole cluster of different things — melodic, unexpected harmonies and an unusual use of rhythm.”

Bach was so taken with Buxtehude that in 1705 he walked more than 250 miles from Arnstadt, where Bach was a church organist, to Lübeck to learn from Buxtehude. The elder composer offered an assistant position to the younger composer upon the condition he marry Buxtehude’s eldest daughter. Bach left Lübeck a bachelor, but nonetheless married his style to that of the man who wished to be his father-in-law.

“Bach’s choral preludes would be the type of music he studied with Buxtehude,” Wilhite says, adding Bach’s composition became more complex after learning with the elder organist.

Sonata bad idea

Buxtehude’s sonatas for chamber ensemble stand nearly alone in the history of chamber music, Wilhite says.

“Other North German composers such as Erlebach and Becker employed the same scoring of violin, viola da gamba and cembalo (harpsichord) — a combination almost unheard of in Italy, birthplace of the sonata,” he says. “But Buxtehude’s sonatas are quite different than the suites of Erlebach and Becker, which offer a predictable sequence of dance movements introduced by a prelude. Buxtehude’s sonatas are anything but predictable, varying in length from three to 14 contrasting sections and featuring a compendium of musical styles and techniques.”

And, as a viola da gamba player, that’s just fine for Wilhite.

“I am intrigued by the fact Buxtehude himself was a da gamba player,” Wilhite says. “When I play the music I think of that. As a composer he wants what he wants, and he doesn’t make it easy for you. He certainly draws everything out of the instrument, from high to low.”




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