Dietrich Buxtehude is probably most familiar to modern classical music audiences as the man who inspired the young Johann Sebastian Bach to make a lengthy pilgrimage to Lubeck, Buxtehude's place of employment and residence for most of his life, just to hear Buxtehude play the organ. But Buxtehude was a major figure among German Baroque composers in his own right. Though we do not have copies of much of the work that most impressed his contemporaries, Buxtehude nonetheless left behind a body of vocal and instrumental music which is distinguished by its contrapuntal skill, devotional atmosphere, and raw intensity. He helped develop the form of the church cantata, later perfected by Bach, and he was just as famous a virtuoso on the organ.
No documentation exists for Buxtehude's birth, though he said late in life that he was a native Dane. Since his father, Johannes, was organist and schoolmaster at Oldesloe, Denmark, until 1638, it is a reasonable guess that Dietrich was born there. Johannes moved to Helsingborg in 1638 and to Helsingor in 1641 or 1642, where he stayed until 1671. After learning the organ at the feet of his father, Buxtehude became organist at his father's former church in Helsingor in 1657 or 1658; he then moved to a German-speaking congregation in Helsingborg in 1660. Buxtehude decided to stop following in his father's footsteps when the prestigious position of organist at the Marienkirche in Lubeck became available; after several others were rejected, Buxtehude got the job on April 11, 1668. He also married the outgoing organist's youngest daughter, Anna Margarethe Tunder, which may have been a condition of taking the post, and certainly was a condition when Buxtehude sought a replacement for himself. Buxtehude was organist at the Marienkirche for the rest of his life. His official duties were to provide congregational chorales and other musical interludes for every service, and to act as treasurer, secretary, and business manager of the church. He was most famous, however, for his Abendmusik concerts, held following the afternoon service on five Sundays a year and on special occasions. Although these concerts are universally described as extraordinary, and were the basis of most of Buxtehude's contemporary fame, very little music from them has survived. Two of the most famous Abendmusik concerts, held on December 2 and 3, 1705, and commemorating the death of Emperor Leopold I and the ascension of Joseph I, were probably attended by Bach on his pilgrimage. Buxtehude had an opportunity for early retirement in 1703, when Georg Friederic Handel and Johann Matheson (famous organists both) visited him; Matheson had been thinking of succeeding Buxtehude at his post, but balked at the requirement to marry Buxtehude's daughter Anna Margareta, and the visit came to nought. After Buxtehude died on May 9, 1707, the church found another organist willing to marry his daughter.
Historically, Buxtehude's organ music has been studied because of its direct influence on Bach; Buxtehude wrote the first truly idiomatic fugues for the organ and was one of the first to experiment with the structure that Bach later codified into the prelude and fugue. Buxtehude is generally considered the greatest organist between Scheidt and Bach and is regarded as the originator of the German organ toccata. However, in addition to the keyboard music that so impressed his contemporaries, he also wrote some extraordinary works for trios involving the viola da gamba. His vocal works shared the devotion and intellectual rigor of his instrumental work, and were also much admired.