In defense of Buxtehude’s daughter

Dieterich Buxtehude (1637 – 1707) was famous for many reasons. Foremost he was extraordinary organist, which is why I’m planning to explore his works this coming Lent. In preparation, I thought I I’d do some reading and share a bit of Dieterich’s history and context. While there was a lot of great information from which you can get a sense of the character of the person, if you Google ‘Buxtehude’ you’ll find plenty of rather unkind and disturbing references to his ‘ugly daughter.’

More about that in a moment, first to the good stuff.

Born in what is now Denmark, Buxtehude spent his life and career in the Free City of Lubeck. A center of commerce and trade with a thriving stock market and beautiful buildings.

Being self-organised made Lubeck an attractive place for trades and crafts to practice free from the imposition of style that was inherent in the system of patronage found elsewhere. Lubeck thrived under self-rule government from 1226 until 1937.

Taught by his father, who was also an organist, Buxtehude was famed to have studied with Frescabaldi himself. And while there is no evidence of this, it speaks to his reputation and worldliness.

He was apprenticed to the great Master of Music in Lubeck, Franz Tunder who was an exponent of the Venetian style and a great conduit for Italian music in Northern Europe. And, as was the practice he married Tunder’s daughter to seal the deal (the job and social standing) and became part of the local musical dynasty.

While his home life appears to have been happy – seven daughters, six survived childhood – his musical and performance prowess grew until he was quite possibly the most famous organist in the region.

J.S. Bach most likely walked the 280 miles to hear Buxtehude play and made his masters back home furious by staying away for four months after only being granted leave for one month.

Thanks to the extended stay, Bach was able to copy by hand a number of Buxtehude’s works which would have been lost otherwise.

Bach was far from the only budding or established composer who made the trek to meet the great Buxtehude. The list is long and distinguished: Handel, Scarlatti, Teleman, Mattheson, Walther, and many others.

And it’s thanks to Buxtehude’s famous Abenmusiken, a very successful series of concerts over Advent at St Mary’s Cathedral (pictured below), that we have one of the first printed concert programs.

So why has history been so unkind to his daughter? Google Buxtehude and this is what pops up:

And not just the armchair historians who are not only unkind to the woman but who are perpetuating this as fact and worse, as a funny fact. So, what do we know?

We know her name was Anna Margareta Buxtehude.

Buxtehude was nearing the end of this life, he died very old for the times at 70. His other daughters had either predeceased him or had married and had families of his own. At the age of 30 Anna Margareta (like young people now) seems to have been content living at home, reading and playing music.

Buxtehude’s own wife had been the daughter of his master who he apprenticed to and who taught him and set him up for success. As young, ambitious composers came to visit him, he obviously assessed them, their talents and capacity. Those who appeared to be suitable to inherit his position, home and possessions should also be prepared to marry his daughter. Seems legit to me.

Also, with no ability to work or provide for herself, what choice did she have? These were terrible times to be a woman who wanted her freedom and independence. And it appears no one has entertained the idea that maybe she declined one or more of these suitors.

A number of would-be suitors declined the ‘whole package’ – job, daughter, social position – as one musicologist calls it, this includes the famous ones: Bach, Handel and Handel’s best friend at the time (that’s a whole other story) Johann Mattheson. History and the rumors about Anna Margareta seem to stem mainly from the rejection of this particular merry band of mischief makers.

Bach was one to speak his mind in letters and minutes of meetings, famously trading insults with musicians and administrators alike. Once he accused a bassoonist of producing a sound like that of ‘breaking wind after eating a green onion.’ Interesting he is silent on the record of Anna Margareta and more interested in marrying his second cousin and preserve his family bloodline (?!).

Handel never married.

Mattheson wrote that “We [him and Handel] travelled together … We listened to that esteemed artist in his St Mary’s church with dignified attention. However, since he had proposed a marriage condition in the matter, for which neither of us expressed the slightest inclination, we took our leave …”

It’s not such a leap to imagine Matheson had no intention of settling down when he was due to inherit big back at home in Hamberg from his tax-collector dad.

Some articles are so unkind they even suggest that had Bach married Anna Margareta that the world would have robbed of the beauty of his music. Think the Anna Magdalene notebook etc. I like to think otherwise, and I hope this little article goes some way to offer a different opinion informed by the context of the time and historical fact.

Anna Margareta did get married to Johann Christian Schieferdecker who worked hard at his music to win the respect of his future father-in-law and eventually succeeded Dietrich Buxtehude as organist of the Marienkirche in Lübeck with his blessing, a position he held honourably until his death at the age of 54 in 1732.

Handel and Mattheson visited in 1703. Bach in 1705. Buxtehude died in 1707. He lived long enough to see Anna Margareta marry, no doubt a happy day for the old man. Sadly, not long enough to see the birth of his granddaughter, Johanna Sophia, in 1708.

Johanna Sophia was Anna Margareta’s only daughter, as she died just a year later at Christmas in 1709. A tragedy for any young family, and for the woman who had waiting such a long time to have her family and baby. At least Buxtehude was spared the pain of being present for the death of his daughter so quickly after her wedding and the birth of Johanna Sophia.

I have no doubt both Anna and Johanna were beautiful in the eyes of Dietrich and Johann, who, for the record, never remarried.

One thought on “In defense of Buxtehude’s daughter

  1. Indeed. It’s probably just as important that Anna would have been subject to deeply dismissive attitudes in her day simply because she was born and conditioned to live as a woman. This topic specifically interests me greatly, that is, the deeply disturbing utilitarian view that women are an uncomfortable yet necessary biological vessel, and no attribution of intellect, action or skill to her would be tolerated. Of course men of the day and today also suffer from these dreaded dichotomies of stereotype but those who still believe in the utilitarian view of gender are far too bound up in testosterone fuelled self-promotion to see past their own narcissism. Jonathon Goodfellow (thanks for permission to post this DB)


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