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Nicolaus Bruhns (Composer)

Born: Advent 1665 - Schwabstedt, near Husum, Germany
Died: March 29, 1697 - Husum, Germany

Nicolaus [Nikolaus] Bruhns [Bruhn, Bruns] was a German composer, organist, violinist and viol player. His family formed a small musical dynasty in Schleswig-Holstein. His grandfather, Paul (d Lübeck, January 17, 1655), a professional lutenist to the ducal court at Gottorf and to Lübeck town council, was married to the daughter of Nicolaus Bleyer. Their three sons chose different musical careers. Friedrich Nicolaus (b Schleswig, February 11, 1637; d Hamburg, March 13, 1718), the eldest, directed music for the cathedral and town council of Hamburg; two arias by him were published (Hamburg, 1692 and 1693); Satanas und sein Getümmel, formerly attributed to Georg Böhm, is also probably by him (ed. in G. Böhm: Sämtliche Werke: Vokalwerke, ed. J. Wolgast, rev. G. Wolgast, ii, Wiesbaden, 1963). The youngest son, Peter (b Lübeck, November 20, 1641; d Lübeck, April 23, 1698), studied string instruments with his father and stepfather, Nathanael Schnittelbach, and the middle son, Paul (b Lübeck, April 6, 1640; d Schwabstedt, c1689), became an organist and may have studied with Franz Tunder. As was a practice of the time, he secured a position at Schwabstedt by marrying his predecessor’s daughter. They had two sons, Nicolaus and Georg (b Schwabstedt, November 1666; d Husum, January 19, 1742).

According to Gerber, Nicolaus Bruhns ‘at an early age could play the organ and write quite well for keyboard and voice’. When he was 16 his father sent him and his brother to live at Lübeck with their uncle Peter. Bruhns learnt the violin and bass viol from him and the organ and composition from Dietrich Buxtehude, who regarded him as a favourite pupil and who sent him out into the world with the highest recommendation. For a few years he worked as a composer and virtuoso violinist in Copenhagen, where Italian musicians, among others, broadened his stylistic background. On March 29, 1689 he competed for the position of organist of the Stadtkirche, Husum. 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’. Only a month or two elapsed before the civic authorities at Kiel tried to woo him away to fill the vacancy caused by the departure for Copenhagen of their organist, Claus Dengel. Making an exception in his case alone, the authorities at Husum protected their interests by raising his salary. As a result he remained in this pleasant, thriving town, enjoying the support and approbation of clergy and musicians until his untimely death. Since his only son, Johan Paul, had chosen theology as a career, he was succeeded by his brother, Georg.

It is unfortunate that none of Nicolaus Bruhns’s chamber music has survived, especially his compositions for violin and viol. The solo cantata Mein Herz ist bereit opens with a brilliant polyphonic sonatina that displays the double and multiple stopping technique of the north German school of violin virtuosos. A well-known passage in Mattheson may relate to such works as this: ‘Sometimes he 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 realize the upper parts on the violin while his feet played an appropriate bass on the pedals’. His extant compositions are for the church and amount to five organ works and 12 vocal works – not an insignificant number considering his early death. Kölsch considered two other cantatas that Eitner ascribed to him to be the work of his uncle Friedrich Nicolaus; Sanctus est Dominus Deus Sabaoth, not mentioned by Eitner, may be a third (all three works are in D-Bsb).

Nicolaus Bruhns’s four praeludia are modelled after D. Buxtehude’s. Two of them, the G major and the longer of the two E minor ones, are in his five-section form: brilliant toccata-like prelude, 4/4 fugue, middle section, 3/4 (3/2) or 4/4 (12/8) fugue and concluding toccata. Bruhns also employed elements of his teacher’s fugal technique, in particular repeated-note subjects and counter-subjects, and thematic transformation in the G major and shorter E minor works. The latter also makes extensive use of the echo device, after the manner of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck’s fantasias. The toccatas equal Vincent Lübeck’s in technical brilliance and include extended passages for solo and double pedal and others that recall violin figuration, but apart from the two excellent E minor works there is not quite the same strength of internal organization as in V. Lübeck’s music. Bruhns’s setting of the Advent chorale Nun komm der Heiden Heiland is open to similar criticism, though the north German chorale fantasia, itself a potpourri of three diverse older forms, the organ ricercare, organ chorale and toccata, tends to be disjunctive in its line-by-line treatment of the verbal text. Bruhns’s piece, played perhaps during the Communion, is in the tradition of Dietrich Buxtehude, Vincent Lübeck, Johann Adam Reincken, Johann Heinrich Scheidemann and Franz Tunder and uses imitative, free-fantasia and echo techniques. He could not possibly have known G. Böhm’s ornamental style, as Sharp suggested.

It is the 12 vocal works that, despite their marked inequality, firmly establish Nicolaus Bruhns’s importance in the mid-Baroque period. He brought the Italian solo cantata to new heights of virtuosity in Germany with his four small-scale sacred concertos. Three of these, De profundis, Mein Herz ist bereit and, perhaps the weakest, Der Herr hat seinen Stuhl, may have been written between 1689 and 1691 for the famous bass Georg Ferber, who had been Kantor at Husum for 14 years before moving to nearby Schleswig two years before Bruhns arrived. The three sacred madrigal cantatas, Hemmt eure Trähnenfluht, Muss nicht der Mensch and O werter heilger Geist, provide a direct link with the 18th century and the work of J.S. Bach. For some reason Bruhns seemed to attach less importance than his contemporaries to two other forms, each of which is represented in his output by only a single work: the chorale concerto by Erstanden ist der heilige Christ and the concerto-aria cantata by Ich liege und schlaffe, though Geck considered the latter undoubtedly the most beautiful of his larger-scale works. The three remaining ensemble concertos include Die Zeit meines Abschieds, a work of strong formal organization. The instrumental writing in the vocal works suggests that Bruhns, like V. Lübeck, could draw on musicians of only average competence. In the main he used a five-part string ensemble with two violas or viols, typical of French music of the period, and with bassoon and continuo.

Concerning Bruhns’s influence on J.S. Bach the evidence is inconclusive. The obituary of J.S. Bach by Johann Friedrich Agricola and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach stated that he took the keyboard works of Bruhns,among others, as models. Some of J.S. Bach’s early works do show superficial resemblances - BWV 568, for example, to the Prelude in G - but in formulae common to the period.


N. Bruhns: Gesammelte Werke, ed. F. Stein, EDM, 2nd ser., Schleswig-Holstein und Hansestädte, i–ii (1937-9) [S]

Sacred Vocal (all in S):
Alleluja. Paratum cor meum (ensemble conc.), 3vv, vn, 2 b viol, bc
De profundis clamavi (sacred conc.), B, 2 vn, bc, ?1689-91
Der Herr hat seinen Stuhl im Himmel bereitet (sacred conc.), B, 2 vn, 2 va, bn, bc, ?1689-91
Die Zeit meines Abschieds ist vorhanden (ensemble conc.), 4vv, 5 insts [2 vn, 2 va, bn], bc
Erstanden ist der heilige Christ (chorale conc.), 2vv, 2 vn, bc
Hemmt eure Trähnenfluht (sacred madrigal cant.), 4vv, 2 vn, 2 va, bn, bc
Ich liege und schlaffe (conc.-aria cant.), 4vv, 5 insts [2 vn, 2 va, bn], bc [first chorus retexted as Ich habe Lust abzuscheiden]
Jauchzet dem Herren alle Welt (sacred conc.), T, 2 vn [bn], bc
Mein Herz ist bereit (sacred conc.), B, vn, bc, ?1689–91
Muss nicht der Mensch auff dieser Erden im steten Streite seyn (sacred madrigal cant.), 4vv, 2 clarini, 2 vn, bn, bc
O werter heilger Geist (sacred madrigal cant.), 4vv, 2 clarini, 2 vn, 2 va, bn, bc, ?Easter 1691
Woll dem, der den Herren fürchtet (ensemble conc.), 3vv, 2 vn, 2 va, bn, bc

[4] Praeludia, 2 in e, G, g; ed. K. Beckmann (Wiesbaden, 1972); ed. M. Radulescu (Vienna, 1993); 3 ed. in Organum, iv/8 (Leipzig, 1925)
Nun komm der Heiden Heiland; ed. K. Beckmann (Wiesbaden, 1972); ed. M. Radulescu (Vienna, 1993)


Source: Grove Music Online, © Oxford University Press 2006, acc. 5/26/06 (Author: Hugh J. McLean)
Contributed by
Thomas Braatz (May 2006)

Nicolaus Bruhns: Shor Biography | Discussions: Nicholas Bruhns & Bach

Use of Chorale Melodies in his works

Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, Chorale Prelude (Fantasia) for Organ (CM: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland)

Links to other Sites

Nicolaus Bruhns (Wikipedia) [English]
Nicolaus Bruhns (Wikipedia) [German]
Bruhns Nicolaus: Biography (Sojurn)
HOASM: Nicolaus Bruhns


ApelG | EitnerQ | GerberNL | FrotscherG | MatthesonGEP
H. Keller: Die Orgelwerke Bachs: ein Beitrag zu ihrer Geschichte, Form, Deutung und Wiedergabe (
Leipzig, 1948/R; Eng. trans., 1967)
H. Kölsch: Nicolaus Bruhns (Kassel, 1958)
R.C. Fosse: ‘Nicolaus Bruhns’, The Musical Heritage of the Lutheran Church, ed. T. Hoelty-Nickel, v (St Louis, 1959), 92-107
G.B. Sharp: ‘Nicolaus Bruhns’, MT, cvii (1966), 677-80
M. Geck: Nicolaus Bruhns: Leben und Werk (Cologne, 1968)
K.G. Powell: The North German Organ Toccata (1650-1710) (DMA diss., U. of Illinois, 1969)
K.G. Powell: ‘An Analysis of the North German Toccatas’, The Diapason, lxii/5 (1970-71), 27-9
K.J. Snyder: Dieterich Buxtehude: Organist in Lübeck (New York, 1987)
G.A. Webber: North German Church Music in the Age of Buxtehude (Oxford, 1996)

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