CBF’s Medieval Hymn

By Scott MacClelland

ANDREW MEGILL described Dieterich Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri as a masterpiece, during an email exchange I had with him earlier this year. I didn’t know the piece at that time, but I did find a YouTube of it online and got acquainted.

Still, the performance at Carmel Mission on Wednesday last week was a revelation. Buxtehude, born (probably) at Helsingborg in Denmark (now Sweden), and named after a Hanseatic League suburb of Hamburg, was a high-profile musician and composer a generation and a half (1637-1707) before the birth of JS Bach. He is best known for his organ music but, as this piece also shows, he was a musical pioneer of great influence on future generations.

Membra Jesu Nostri, meaning Limbs of our Jesus, is a set of seven short cantatas for Holy Week that uses a small ensemble of strings, plus organ, in support of a choir that singles out solos, duos and trios of voices, lasting in performance about an hour. Megill broke it up with the insertion of three a cappella works from the 16th century (Tomas Luis de Victoria’s “Versa Est in Luctum cithara mea”), 19th century (Anton Bruckner’s “Christus factus est”) and 20th century (Knut Nystedt’s O Crux). Anyone who had not read the program notes in advance would probably have gotten lost in the Buxtehude. And the three insertions would likely have added confusion, not least because the Victoria and Nystedt pieces were presented in reverse order from the printed program book.     

The text Buxtehude used is a medieval cycle that lovingly contemplates Christ’s body parts with a mystical reverence, starting with the feet, then knees, hands, sides, breast, heart and, finally, face. The full festival Chorale sang the first four sections, each featuring soloists drawn from its members. For the next two sections, only a trio of voices were used, two men and one woman for the fifth, two women and one man for the sixth. This describes a considerable variety of vocal textures—not to mention timbres that come with each unique voice in the smaller ensembles—but suggests a great variety in the other components as well. The conversations among the strings and with the small organ, changing meters, pictorialisms cued by the character of the unfolding texts and the composer’s flair for the dramatic made for quite a feast for the audience.

But the caveat remains: one must prepare in advance to be able to savor all these gem-like details. There are a number of excellent CD recordings available. As the 80-minute concert drew toward its close, some found the wooden pews a bit too unforgiving and departed early. (We sat in the very back of the mission church but, surprising to me, the sound remained clear and well-defined all the way to the next to last Row, HH.)

Megill chose the three outlier motets with careful attention to the character of the program overall. In six voice parts, “Versa est in luctum,” is from Victoria’s last published work, his Requiem Mass, of 1605. It pays homage to Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina in warm and soothing character. In the Bruckner, the Chorale rose to full, thundering power in the words, “Christ became obedient for us unto death, even to the death, death on the cross. Therefore God exalted Him and gave Him a name which is above all names.” Nystedt’s six-minute O Crux, composed in 1977, uses a 6th century verse that venerates the cross, set here for nine voice parts. The Norwegian composer, who died in 2014 at age 99, was a one-time pupil of Aaron Copland. This exquisite piece makes no small use of dissonant harmonies and rhythms, harking back to Copland’s early music, like the splendidly notorious Organ Symphony.

When Megill emailed me about the Buxtehude the title came across as Membra Jesu Nostril. “Argh,” he responded. “Autocorrect!” Since the last of the short cantatas is about the Face, I’d say the typo landed right on the nose. The last page or so of that final piece gave way to an Amen of such extravagance as to recall the Amen ending of Handel’s Messiah.