Membra Jesu Nostri

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Dietrich Buxtehude

Membra Jesu Nostri

BuxWV. 75

About this work

The largest extant work by the brilliant organist-composer of the St, Mary Church of Lübeck, Germany. A Passion cycle for chorus, solo voices and chamber orchestra, the structural form of this work (7 cantatas X 6 interior parts in each, with 3 arias or half-strophes, two for solo voice and one for vocal trio; and the 7 key centers) follows, with additional Old Testament quotes, the seven-part schema of a medieval poem, the "Rhythmica oratio ad unum quodlibet membrorum Christi patientis et a cruce pendentis" ascribed to Bernard of Clairvaux, which contains seven mystical meditations on the different parts of the crucified Jesus's body: I. Ad Pedes (To The Feet) in c-minor, opening with a sonata for strings, with a tenor cry "Salve" followed by a moving five-part choral response; II. Ad Genua (To The Knees) in E-flat major, opens with a mysterious "Sonata in Tremulo" with the strings slowly approaching as if from nowhere with a pulsing cycle of extraordinarly modulating chords, as if circling in the air it almost disappears, and then approaches again to cadence, when the choir takes over on the same progression in canon, followed by tenor and contralto arias and a trio; III. Ad Manus (To the Hands) in g-minor, in which the voices echo the opening string sonata with imitation of the constant alternation between slow, suspended, and twisting passages expressing feelings of pathos, and strong, faster, declamatory choruses; IV. Ad Latus (To the Side) in d-minor, opening with a simple sonata in 6/4 time around a bridge of suspensions (a compositional device perfected by J.S. Bach), and continuing with chorus, soprano aria and trio with some unusual modulations; V. Ad Pectus (To the Chest) in a-minor, with a vocal trio instead of chorus delivering the text; VI. Ad Cor (To the Heart) is scored for an unusual quintet of viol de gambas with harpsichord continuo, adding a muted, interior texture to the deeply moving passages; VII. Ad Faciem (To the Face) returning to c-minor, brings back the choir for several magnificient passages, including a joyous "Amen" chorus in 6/4 time.