Thursday, March 30, 2023

A Musical Monument of Lenten Piety: Dietrich Buxtehude’s “Membra Jesu Nostri”

Our thanks to Julian Kwasniewski for sharing with us this lovely explanation of some devotional music for Passiontide. Mr Kwasniewski is a musician specializing in Renaissance lute and vocal music, an artist and graphic designer, as well as marketing consultant for several Catholic companies. His writings have appeared in this publication, National Catholic Register, OnePeterFive, Crisis, Latin Mass Magazine, and The European Conservative. You can find some of his artwork on Etsy, and his music on YouTube.

Photo by Fr Lawrence Lew O.P. 

One of the great monuments of devotional music from the Baroque period is Dieterich Buxtehude’s cycle of seven sacred cantatas Membra Jesu Nostri, which sets Biblical and medieval Latin poetry in honor of the wounds of Christ. Buxtehude (1637-1707) was a Dutch organist and composer who had significant influence on other later Baroque composers such as Handel and Bach. Regarded primarily as a keyboard composer until the early 20th century, over 100 vocal compositions of his survive. A number of his vocal pieces have been lost, including oratorios—mini-opera’s focusing on religious themes.

Although he—like Bach—composed for Lutheran congregations, it was not unusual for Buxtehude to use devotional or Biblical texts in Latin stemming from the Catholic tradition. Such is Membra Jesu Nostri, whose main text is drawn from a medieval poem Salve mundi salutare in honor of the crucified Christ, often attributed to St Bernard. This work is extant in a number of variant forms; in Buxtehude’s cantata, it is paired with various scriptural texts.
Membra Jesu Nostri is scored for five voices: two sopranos, alto, tenor, and bass, along with a small ensemble of instruments: two violins, cello, and “basso continuo.” This last is a type of accompaniment, based on harmonic indications paired with a bass line, and in some ways reminiscent of modern guitar chord symbols, because it gave performers indications rather than exact notes to play, leaving room for improvisation and decoration. This “basso continuo” could be played by multiple instruments, often organ or harpsichord, lute, harp, and a bowed instrument like a cello or the viola da gamba, an instrument similar to the cello, but with more strings.
One of the best performances of Membra Jesu Nostri was directed by René Jacobs, and includes two of my favorite singers. One is Maria Cristina Kiehr, an Argentinian soprano whose voice avoids the operatic vibrato that often makes classically-trained singers off-putting. The second singer is Andreas Scholl, one of the world’s leading countertenors, meaning that he sings in an alto range using his falsetto. Scholl avoids the squeaky or thin sound that sometimes is associated with the male falsetto, instead giving us a rich and warm sound perfectly controlled and ornamented. This performance is well filmed, giving a good glimpse of the various historical instruments being used. The basso continuo is played on an organ, lute, and “violone”, a type of Renaissance-era double bass.
Turning to the libretto, each cantata addresses a part of Jesus’ crucified body: feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and face. Buxtehude alternates between “concerto” sections using the full choir and all the instruments, with arias of one, two, or three voices and simple accompaniment. A full translation can be found on Wikipedia.
Ad Pedes—“to the feet”. The piece opens with an instrumental “sinfonia”, or short prelude, which itself opens with a static C minor chord before plunging into a stirring counterpoint. The primary sentiment of this section is encapsulated by the final bass aria:
“Sweet Jesus, merciful God
I cry to You, in my guilt
Show me Your grace,
Turn me not unworthy away
From Your sacred feet.”
If you want to try a slightly slower take on the piece, you might try listening to this performance.
Ad Genua—“to the knees”. This movement opens with slow sonata “in tremulo”, where the bowed instruments create a wavering, pulsing effect by their bowing technique. The Concerto text is taken from Isaiah, where the prophet speaks of Jerusalem as a mother, but here applied to the crucified Christ: “You will be brought to nurse and dandled on the knees”. Again, a different and slower take on this movement may be found here:
Ad Manus—“to the hands”. This sinfonia opens with violent phrases which climax in a E flat dissonance against a D on the word “wounds” two measures after the choir comes in. As in the previous movement, the final aria is a trio.
Ad Latus—“to the side”. This fourth movement opens in a 6:4 time-signature, maintaining a triple meter until the arias. This gives it a dance-like quality that perfectly matches the text taken from the Song of Songs, calling the beloved to rise up: “Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come, my dove in the clefts of the rock, in the hollow of the cliff.” Mystical writers have long associated the dove with the soul and the cleft of the rock as the wound in Christ’s side. Between the arias in four-four time, the sinfonias revert to triple time.
Ad Pectus—“to the breast”. For this movement, Buxtehude reduces the five voices of the concerto to three, just alto, tenor, and bass. The opening text from St Paul on “rational infants drinking the rational milk” is applied to drinking from the wound in Christ’s side, a theme found in such writers as St Bernard. René Jacobs interpretation of the whole piece is considerably faster than others: listen here to see the sort of difference between a more resonant space, slower tempo, and having two singers per line. Note that here there is no plucked instrument in the basso continuo.
Ad Cor—“to the heart”. In this penultimate section, Buxtehude changes the ensemble’s instrumentation, substituting five viola da gambas for the two violins and cello. This creates a very rich and somber tonal landscape. Another effect Buxtehude utilizes is a regular change of time-signature. This gives me the impression of a racing heart alternating with deep sorrow when one is in the grip of a strong emotion. The vocal forces are reduced to two sopranos and bass. The lyrical bass solo which forms the centerpiece of this sixth movement interweaves with the viol consort, melding into a trio where dissonances in all parts build tension and emotion on the words from the Song of Songs “vulnerasti cor meum”, “you have wounded my heart”. Another beautiful take on this movement (although only the first part) is by Ensemble ZENE.
Ad Faciem—“to the face”. In the final movement, we are back at the original scoring of five voices and violins. In a rhythmic concerto section, a text from the Psalms is sung: Let Your face shine upon Your servant, save me in Your mercy.” An unusual 6:4 trio aria emphasizes the stanza of the Latin poem which speaks of the crowning with thorns. Rather than repeating the concerto as the other movements have done, this final one ends with a contrapuntal Amen reminiscent of some Bach cantatas.
Even if you are not a musician, and couldn’t care less what a sinfonia, viola da gamba, or a time signature is, I believe that Membra Jesu Nostri has the power that all beautiful works of art have: to speak to the soul, uplift it, and draw one out of oneself. As we continue in our Lent towards Holy Week, perhaps listening to these cantatas can be an opportunity for relaxation, artistic renewal, and spiritual revelation.

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