Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1708)

Dietrich Buxtehude’s cantatas entitled Membra Jesu nostri patientis sanctissima (The Most Holy Limbs of Our Suffering Jesus) contemplate seven parts of Christ’s crucified body – his pierced feet, bent knees, bleeding hands, wounded side, revered breast, loving heart, and thorn-crowned face. Combining vivid texts with intensely expressive music, they were, according to their title page in Buxtehude’s own hand, a personal act of piety and a gift to a “most honored friend” Gustav Düben, cantor at the German Church in Stockholm and capellmeister of the Swedish court. At the heart of each of the seven cantatas is an aria setting three strophes of a Medieval mystical rhymed prayer known as Oratio rhythmica, famous in part because of its mistaken attribution to Bernard of Clairvaux, a hero of pious devotion. The preface to a seventeenth century edition of Oratio rhythmica explains its purpose that “through the devout reading and meditation on the passion and death of Jesus Christ, sorrowful, repentant sinners and doubtful, afflicted hearts may be comforted and made joyful, and the faithful aroused to further, greater, and higher devotion in whatever they do, and inflamed by the Holy Spirit of God.”

Buxtehude frames each central aria with a sacred concerto for voices and instruments setting a biblical text chosen to compliment the poetry and sets the tone for each cantata with an opening instrumental sonata. The result is an hourglass-like cantata form that moves from collective scripture reading by the concerto’s large ensemble, to personal reflection in the solo aria, and concludes with communal affirmation by repeating the concerto.

In terms of compositional conception, unity is a serious consideration. Buxtehude presents, in the seven works, an affecting tonal circuit from C minor via related keys, returning to the dark smouldering intensity of the opening key for the final cantata. Within this, the emotional charge comes in most concentrated doses in the framing concertos.

Cantata I, Ad Pedes (To the feet): In this concerto Buxtehude builds the five-part texture with supreme nobility.

Cantata II, Ad Genua (To the knees): The only major-keyed work, Ad genua (To the knees), conveys a pointillist image of Isaiah’s ‘dandled upon her knees’ with the trio-sonata strings ‘in tremula’.

Cantata III, Ad Manus (To the hands), opens with a deeply interrogative rhetoric (‘What are these wounds in thine hands?’), instilled at the outset from the rhythmic character of the instrumental motifs to the gradually more insistent vocal tutti. The plangent and mature dissonance upon which Buxtehude develops this quasi-erotic harmonic character foreshadows Scarlatti, Pergolesi, Lotti and others who brought extended sensuality to the bittersweet world of Christ’s crucifixion.

Cantata IV, Ad Latus (To the side), is a contemplation on healing as much as sorrow, the ritornelli is set elegantly in triple-time.

Cantata V,  Ad Pectus (To the breast) demonstrates a fixed harmonic pattern for each aria.

Cantata VI, Ad Cor (To the heart): At the heart of the cycle of cantatas is the most tender and intimate “Ad cor”. Here Buxtehude requests a dramatic instrumentation change to the delicate, shimmering timbre of an ensemble of five viols. Devotional meditation served to evoke empathy and compassion for the suffering Christ, but also to bring comfort.

Cantata VII, Ad Faciem (To the face), brings the work to an elaborate conclusion with an Amen of delectation and unassuming gracefulness. Such is Buxtehude’s genius for creating the ultimate in spiritual impact, without a note of gratuitous indulgence.

©Christina Hutten and Jonathan Freeman-Attwood

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