He is thought to have been born with the name Diderich Buxtehude. His parents were Johannes (Hans Jensen) Buxtehude and Helle Jespersdatter. His Father originated from Oldesloe in the Duchy of Holstein, which at that time was a part of the Danish Monarchy (but is now in Germany). Scholars dispute both the year and country of Dieterich's birth, although most now accept that he was born in 1637 in Helsingborg, Skåne, at the time part of Denmark (but now part of Sweden). His obituary stated that "he recognized Denmark as his native country, whence he came to our region; he lived about 70 years". Others, however, claim that he was born at Oldesloe. Later in his life he Germanized his name and began signing documents Dieterich Buxtehude.
Buxtehude's last post, from 1668, was at the Marienkirche, Lübeck which had two organs, a large one for big services and a small one for devotionals and funerals. There he succeeded Franz Tunder and followed in many of the footsteps of his predecessor. He married Tunder's daughter Anna Margarethe in 1668 – it was not uncommon practice that a man marry the daughter of his predecessor in his occupation. Buxtehude and Anna Margarethe had seven daughters who were baptized at the Marienkirche; however, his first daughter died as an infant. After his retirement as organist at St Olaf's Church, his Father joined the family in Lübeck in 1673. Johannes died a year later, and Dieterich composed his funeral music. Dieterich's brother Peter, a barber, joined them in 1677.
His post in the free Imperial city of Lübeck afforded him considerable latitude in his musical career, and his autonomy was a model for the careers of later Baroque masters such as George Frideric Handel, Johann Mattheson, Georg Philipp Telemann and Johann Sebastian Bach. In 1673 he reorganized a series of evening musical performances, initiated by Tunder, known as Abendmusik, which attracted Musicians from diverse places and remained a feature of the church until 1810. In 1703, Handel and Mattheson both traveled to meet Buxtehude, who was by then elderly and ready to retire. He offered his position in Lübeck to Handel and Mattheson but stipulated that the organist who ascended to it must marry his eldest daughter, Anna Margareta. Both Handel and Mattheson turned the offer down and left the day after their arrival. In 1705, J.S. Bach, then a young man of twenty, walked from Arnstadt to Lübeck, a distance of more than 400 kilometres (250 mi), and stayed nearly three months to hear the Abendmusik, meet the pre-eminent Lübeck organist, hear him play, and, as Bach explained, "to comprehend one thing and another about his art". In addition to his musical duties, Buxtehude, like his predecessor Tunder, served as church treasurer.
The bulk of Buxtehude's oeuvre consists of vocal music, which covers a wide variety of styles, and organ works, which concentrate mostly on chorale settings and large-scale sectional forms. Chamber music constitutes a minor part of the surviving output, although the only chamber works Buxtehude published during his lifetime were fourteen chamber sonatas. Unfortunately, many of Buxtehude's compositions have been lost. The librettos for his oratorios, for Example, survive; but none of the scores do, which is particularly unfortunate, because his German oratorios seem to be the model for later works by Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann. Further evidence of lost works by Buxtehude and his contemporaries can be found in the recently discovered catalogue of a 1695 music-auction in Lübeck.
There are over 40 surviving chorale settings by Buxtehude, and they constitute the most important contributions to the genre in the 17th century. His settings include chorale variations, chorale ricercares, chorale fantasias and chorale preludes. Buxtehude's principal contributions to the organ chorale are his 30 short chorale preludes. The chorale preludes are usually four-part cantus firmus settings of one stanza of the chorale; the melody is presented in an elaborately ornamented version in the upper voice, the three lower parts engage in some form of counterpoint (not necessarily imitative). Most of Buxtehude's chorale settings are in this form. Here is an Example from chorale Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott BuxWV 184:
There are also 19 harpsichord suites and several variation sets. The suites follow the standard model (Allemande – Sarabande – Courante – Gigue), sometimes excluding a movement and sometimes adding a second sarabande or a couple of doubles. Like Froberger's, all dances except the gigues employ the French lute style brisé, sarabandes and courantes frequently being variations on the allemande. The gigues employ basic imitative counterpoint but never go as far as the gigue fugues in the chorale fantasias or the fugal writing seen in organ preludes. It may be that the more developed harpsichord writing by Buxtehude simply did not survive: in his writings, Johann Mattheson mentioned a cycle of seven suites by Buxtehude, depicting the nature of planets, but these pieces are lost.
The three ostinato bass works Buxtehude composed—two chaconnes (BuxWV 159–160) and a passacaglia (BuxWV 161)—not only represent, along with Pachelbel's six organ chaconnes, a shift from the traditional chaconne style, but are also the first truly developed north German contributions to the development of the genre. They are among Buxtehude's best-known works and have influenced numerous composers after him, most notably Bach (whose organ passacaglia is modeled after Buxtehude's) and Johannes Brahms. The pieces feature numerous connected sections, with many suspensions, changing meters, and even real modulation (in which the ostinato pattern is transposed into another key).
The preludes are quite varied in style and structure, and are therefore hard to categorize, as no two praeludia are alike. The texture of Buxtehude’s praeludia can be described as either free or fugal. They consist of strict diatonic harmony and secondary dominants. Structure-wise, there usually is an introductory section, a fugue and a postlude, but this basic scheme is very frequently expanded: both BuxWV 137 and BuxWV 148 include a full-fledged chaconne along with fugal and toccata-like writing in other sections, BuxWV 141 includes two fugues, sections of imitative counterpoint and parts with chordal writing. Buxtehude’s praeludia are not circular, nor is there a recapitulation. A fugal theme, when it recurs, does so in a new, changed way. A few pieces are smaller in scope; for Example, BuxWV 144, which consists only of a brief improvisatory prelude followed by a longer fugue. The sections may be explicitly separated in the score or flow one into another, with one ending and the other beginning in the same bar. The texture is almost always at least three-voice, with many instances of four-voice polyphony and occasional sections in five voices (BuxWV 150 being one of the notable examples, with five-voice structure in which two of the voices are taken by the pedal).