Opera + Classical Music Features

Music for Holy Week: Palm Sunday – Buxtehude’s ‘Membra Jesu Nostri’

While Holy Week might normally see our reviewers running from event to event, this year they are taking the opportunity to reflect on music relevant to the season. Today, Sam Smith considers a German Baroque masterpiece from a Danish composer. 

Dietrich Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri of 1680 is a contemplative work that possesses a touch of the divine. Set around the medieval hymn ‘Salve mundi salutare’, long thought to have been written by Bernard of Clairvaux but now believed to be by the poet Arnulf of Leuven, the work comprises seven cantatas that in turn meditate on one part of Jesus’ body. 

All of the cantatas are structured in the same way, so that each comprises an opening instrumental sonata followed by a concerto sung by three or five voices, in which the words are drawn from the Bible. Three strophes from ‘Salve mundi salutare’, each presented in the style of an aria, then follow before (with the exception of the final cantata) the concerto is repeated. While, however, such an underlying formula sounds as if it might produce a piece that feels repetitive, the work is exceptionally well crafted. In this way, as the cantatas consider in turn Christ’s feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart and face, they feel extremely melancholic from the outset and then only increase in sorrow and intensity as they go on.

The string lines highlight in particular how well thought through the piece is, by revealing how music that feels so deep from the start can then constantly surprise us through the sheer variety of the explorations. The cantatas also reveal just how many ways in which sorrow can be rendered. For example, Cantata II (to be found below) sees tremolo writing in the opening sonata introduce a level of emotional intensity above that which is achieved even at the start of Cantata I. 

Cantata III feels like the model cantata for illustrating how each of them is structured. Following the opening sonata, the concerto is sung by all five voices before one soprano sings the first strophe, the other the second and the alto, tenor and bass the third. This ‘template’ is followed throughout, although, while each cantata employs roughly the same combinations of singers at the different points, there is enough variation to ensure that the piece is constantly being developed. For example, the two sopranos and alto are frequently employed together. 

Cantata III also sees every vocal line dwell on the word ‘plagae’ to emphasise each person’s contemplation of Christ’s wounds. It is notable how the tenor begins his utterance of the word before the bass, but finishes it after him, which is a device on Buxtehude’s part to reveal just how long the former contemplates them.

There are many recordings of the work, but our recommendation would be Harry Christophers and The Sixteen’s 2010 offering, available on the CORO label, in which the intelligence Buxtehude shows in the string writing is brought out to the full. The Sixteen also performed the work, with entirely different soloists, at the Wigmore Hall in 2017, where specific choices exercised over presentation also enhanced the experience. For example, in Cantata V the bass was brought forward on the stage for the third strophe so that, by enabling his sound to be projected just a little more easily from his new position, perfect balance across the ensemble was maintained. 

The instruments of The Sixteen comprised two violins, cello, theorbo and organ, but on that occasion the penultimate cantata saw several of these depart to be replaced by Fretwork. This introduced another dimension because the latter’s viols felt perfectly suited to plunging the piece into a deeper level of sorrow again as the cantata considered the heart. Following this the final cantata that meditated on the face felt, with the return of all of The Sixteen’s instruments, just a little more joyful in relative terms. It was as if the greatest pain had been endured and conquered, which in turn enabled Christ’s face to look on the penitent and grant them mercy.  

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More on The Sixteen
Monteverdi Vespers review – The Sixteen at The Barbican
The Sixteen ‘A Child is Born’ review – crisp performances for Christmas
Iberian Roots: The Sixteen in a programme of poignant polyphony at Wigmore Hall
Music for Holy Week: Palm Sunday – Buxtehude’s ‘Membra Jesu Nostri’
Saint Cecilia @ Kings Place, London