Friday, 15 May 2015

“Buxtehude, Headmaster!”

Archiv ARC 3096 front 02 

Herr, nun läßt du deinen Diener BuxWV 37
Quemadmodum desiderat cervus, ciaccona BuxWV 92
*Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele BuxWV 71
Helmut Krebs (tenor),
instrumental ensemble / *Berlin Bach Orchestra strings,
Carl Gorvin (organ / *conductor)
Archiv Produktion ARC 3096 [APM 14088 / 14529]
(rec. 29-30 October 1956, *25 October 1957,
Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem)

Apologies: I started this post in September 2013, and almost immediately abandoned it. A couple of things, which I’ll come to later, have prompted me to revive it.

When I first saw Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film If, a satire on British boys’ boarding schools and their traditional cruelty, I was still attending one myself, I think. I’d already gone potty for classical music and I’d probably come across the great Dane, played on one of our school’s fine organs – but back then, it was Messiaen’s L’Ascension and La nativité which really blew me away. I missed it at the time but much later, a friend reminded me of a pithy line, spoken by If’s fictional chaplain, after being asked what music the organ was playing as the boys exited Chapel:

‘Padre, that was a super voluntary you gave us this morning. What was it, 18th century?’ ‘Buxtehude, Headmaster!

Actually, it was the Toccata from Widor’s Symphony No.5. What does this mean?, asks a perplexed punter on IMDb. It could mean any number of things; to me, it’s a brief but dense joke at the expense of that system of education. The raison d’être of British ‘public’ schools, supposedly, was the fostering in boys of  something which still sends shivers down my spine: ‘team spirit’. Now, a team needs a captain; in If’s joke, as I read it, he is the headmaster. To lead, the captain needs to know what’s going on. So he asks his subordinate – here, the chaplain – who obliges with the kind of misinformation which led to mass slaughter in the trenches etc., magnificently sent up in the final shoot-out of Anderson’s film. (I suspect there’s a also a dig at a certain strand of British musical philistinism: of course, nobody can be expected to know everything – but Widor’s Toccata, for goodness’ sake…)

Down With Skool front [corrected]

Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle
down with skool!
London: Max Parrish & Co. Ltd., 1958
1968 Armada paperback, originally my friend Stephen’s
(did I nick it or did he give it to me?…)

At the same time, the padre’s Buxtehude joke celebrates genuine strengths of British public schools: eccentricity, contrarianism, subversion, delight in the arcane. These are celebrated traits of wider British culture, obviously: but the schools’ contradictory totalitarianism (the sole advantage of right-wing tyrannies) – ‘team spirit’ and muscular Christianity versus unworldly academicism and dubious ancient poems – creates convenient corners for them to sprout in. Any boarding-school survivor watching If would have known masters and fellow-pupils with unusual tastes and obsessive interests. Unlike the conformist rebels who made a predictable song and dance of their rebellion, these resisted silently, with jokes and sabotage comprehensible to almost no one. Hence: ‘Buxtehude, Headmaster.’

At school, I was apparently the only friend of a kindly loner who introduced me to H.P. Lovecraft and who, a year or so later, shot himself during the holidays (which, my housemaster seemed to imply as he reported my friend’s suicide to me one evening, was my fault…). Another friend, to our matron’s disgust, spent his time publishing papers on subatomic particle physics, instead of washing; he’s now one of the world’s leading computer scientists. Others formed a consort of viols: hearing them play sparked a hunger for early music which I still feed almost every day.

Talking of which, back to Buxtehude. What has prompted me to revisit this post is a) guilt at neglecting Grumpy’s groupies, b) buying this box a couple of weeks ago, and c) listening to all of it for the first time, finishing just a few hours ago:

Buxtehude Opera Omnia 01, A7II   Color-Heliar 75, 12-May-15

Buxtehude Opera Omnia
Bruhns Complete Organ Works
Amsterdam Baroque Choir and Orchestra,
Ton Koopman (organ / harpsichord / conductor)
(recorded September 2005 – June 2013)
Challenge Classics CC772261 (29 CDs, 1 DVD, 6 booklets)

If, like me, you’re a Buxtehude bore, you’ll probably have to have this box. It’s expensive in Britain (much more so than in Europe), but I was lucky and happened to check the price on a day when it was discounted by 40%. There’s probably too much vocal music in the box for all but us Lübeck loonies, and the best pieces are well distributed across the vocal CDs, making it difficult to recommend one. So my quick picks are the very first volume, 2 CDs of harpsichord music including the monumental variations on ‘La Capricciosa’, any of the organ CDs – OK, start with the cracking Volume VIII / Organ Works 3 – and eight wonderful unpublished sonatas, in Volume XII / Chamber Music 1.

Nor will I compare the recordings on the Archiv LP, made nearly sixty years ago, with those in this box – but the earlier ones have nothing to fear from any comparison. Helmut Krebs was in his prime, and his voice, fresh and light, would surely be the envy of any ‘HIP’ tenor today. The instrumental ensemble is no bigger than the ones employed by Koopman:

Archiv ARC 3096 listing

[NOTE: the other two works on the LP, Ich bin eine Blume zu Saron BuxWV 45, and Ich suchte des Nachts BuxWV 50, are equally if not more beautiful. But I haven’t transferred them, as they were reissued in 2000, on a CD in DG’s Fischer-Dieskau 75 Edition, coupled with Bach’s two most famous cantatas for low male voice, BWV 56 and 82. A self-recommending disc, it’s deleted but not too hard to find:

DG 463 517-2 booklet front

Bach, Buxtehude Sacred vocal music
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Helmut Krebs,
Karl Richter, Carl Gorvin
DG 463 517-2]

Three of these recordings were premieres: BuxWV 92 and 71 (with Krebs only) and BuxWV 50 (with Fischer-Dieskau and Krebs). The Swiss tenor Max Meili had recorded BuxWV 37 in about 1950 for Concert Hall (E-5); and the bass Bruno Müller, with Hans Grischkat on Vox (PL 7620), beat Fischer-Dieskau to BuxWV 45 by about 5 years. (I’ve never seen either LP – they don’t seem common.) Given that, one marvels at the fluency, assurance and ‘rightness’ of the performances on the Archiv LP.

You can download the three mono, fully tagged FLACs, in a .rar file, from here.

Koopman’s Opera Omnia box includes a touching written tribute to Bruno Grusnick (1900-1992), the German musicologist who studied, edited, published and championed Buxtehude’s vocal music, discovering many unique manuscripts in the Düben Collection in Uppsala. (I’ve always coveted Grusnick’s beautiful Buxtehude editions as published by Ugrino. They don’t seem at all common.) Grusnick wrote a very good note for the Archiv LP, and I think I forgot to include sung texts in the .rar file, so I’ve uploaded a text file with both (only the bits relevant to the works I’ve transferred), here.

I’m sorry if this upload seems a bit stingy. I had also intended to offer another Buxtehude LP recorded by Archiv in 1956, of four substantial sacred vocal pieces, charmingly sung by the Norddeutscher Singkreis conducted by Gottfried Wolters – but that has been transferred for the Bibliothèque nationale’s BnF Collection series of downloads, in very acceptable sound, and as I write it is for sale on Qobuz in lossless format and high resolution, priced at next to nothing. I’m not sure why Krebs’s LP hasn’t also been transferred – maybe it will – but I urge you to support the BnF Collection, both for its own sake and because I’m hoping the Bibliothèque nationale will make enough money from it to transfer and market their 78s.

Transept organ, St. Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent, A7II, 5-Apr-15

Not Lübeck but somewhere very like it:
Transept organ (Bis & Destré, 1653),
St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium,
6 April 2015

You’re probably bored of waiting for me to get my act together and post more stuff. Once again, I’m sorry. I keep inventing time- (and money-)wasting things to do, instead of decluttering the Cave, publishing my thesis, finding funding for my academic research and setting up a 78 transfer chain. But the last will happen, I promise – I just don’t know when. I have bought so much interesting stuff which I simply must share, including lots of historic Buxtehude. Thank you for your patience.


  1. Hi there, and welcome back to the dwindling cadre of active bloggers! You posts are always a pleasure.

    1. You're extremely kind, thank you! I will try to be more active, inspired by your shining example. Very best wishes, G

  2. Good to see activity here again.

    Always interesting and arcane.

    Keep it going.


    Douglas (UK)