Composer Feature: Nicolaus Bruhns

Nicolaus Bruhns

Organist and composer Nicolaus Bruhns was born near the port of Husum on the German/Danish borders in 1665. The town was also the birthplace of novelist Theodor Storm, who coined the epithet ‘the grey town by the sea’.

The harbour at Husum

The harbour at Husum

Despite this less than illustrious start, Bruhns, in his short life was to become one of the most prominent musicians of his generation. His life began in the little village of Schwabstedt just outside Husum where he grew up in a family of musicians and composers. His grandfather was a professional lutenist to the ducal court at Gottorf and to Lübeck town council. His father, Paul was the local organist – possibly having studied with Franz Tunder.

The Bruhns' family home in Schwabstedt

The Bruhns’ family home in Schwabstedt

When he was 16, Nicolaus and his brother Georg went to Iive with their uncle in Lübeck where he learnt the violin and viola da gamba, and then organ and composition with the great Dieterich Buxtehude, who was so impressed with his talents and progress that he recommended him for work as an organist and violinist in Copenhagen. It was here, mixing with Italian musicians – and other nationalities – where his musical and stylistic awareness was undoubtedly broadened.

Dieterich Buxtehude

Dieterich Buxtehude

Bruhns was now in demand and was offered jobs simultaneously in Husum and Kiel – but he chose his home town as they increased his salary to win him over. The decision to appoint him was unanimous, ‘since never before had the city heard his like in composition and performance on all manner of instruments’. He remained in Husum until his untimely death in 1697, at the age of just 31.

The composer Johann Mattheson who was a contemporary of Bruhns wrote:
“Sometimes he [Bruhns] took his violin up to the organ loft and played with such skill that it sounded like two, three or more instruments at once. Thus he would realise the upper parts on the violin while his feet played an appropriate bass on the pedals.”

Bruhns’ surviving works are unfortunately small with just 12 vocal and 5 organ pieces having survived. His three sacred madrigal cantatas are said to represent a direct link with the next century and the work of JS Bach. As for his organ works, one of his two E minor praeludia is often cited as one of the greatest works of the North German organ tradition.

Example of Nicolaus Bruhns' surviving manuscripts

Example of Nicolaus Bruhns’ surviving manuscripts

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