Program Notes - Membra Jesu Nostri - April 22, 2018

The following notes appear in the program for Canzona's concert featuring piece from Bach and Buxtehude.

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J.S. Bach, BWV 4 Christ lag in Todesbanden

The two works you will hear on tonight’s program are deeply connected. Not only are both works profound meditations on the crucifixion, but both place a special emphasis on the key of E minor and are presented in seven distinct sections. 

Christ lag in Todesbanden is one of J.S. Bach’s earliest and most beloved cantatas, believed to have been composed in 1707 when the composer was only 22 years old. The work is based entirely on Martin Luther’s seven-stanza hymn of the same name, adeptly weaving the plainsong chorale tune through each movement in a different way. Luther’s text includes scriptural references to Corinthians, Romans, Revelations, Isaiah, and Exodus, and excerpts from an 11th century liturgical text by Wipo of Burgundy, each verse ending with a resplendent “Halleluja!”. 

A true display of Bach’s compositional prowess, the same tune is used in the same key for each verse in the most creative and elaborate ways. The persistence of one key throughout the entire work is unique among Bach’s cantatas, and the choice of E minor is significant for its frequent association with suffering and the Passion. It is astounding how this limited musical material does not become monotonous over the seven stanzas. The structure of the work as a whole is also artful: If we interpret the opening sinfonia as a short introduction to the Versus 1, we see a completely symmetrical form over the course of the full work: 


Scholars believe that Bach intentionally used this symmetry to represent the cross on the most basic structural level of the work.

Trombone parts were added to reinforce the vocal lines for an Easter performance in 1725. Tonight’s performance will feature the cantata in its original form. 

Dieterich Buxtehude, Membra Jesu Nostri

While Dieterich Buxtehude’s name is well-known to organists and students of music history, it may be less familiar to audiences—unless, perhaps, they know the almost mythical (but true) story of J. S. Bach’s 400km journey on foot to Lübeck to hear the man widely considered the greatest organ virtuoso of his time. Bach was only twenty then, in 1705, and Buxtehude nearing seventy. If Buxtehude’s reputation has been eclipsed by that of Bach, we must remember the esteem in which the younger musician held this extraordinary performer, composer, and programmer. Though we know of no specific dedication for the previous work on tonight’s program, it is interesting to note that Christ lag in Todesbanden was composed in the year of Buxtehude’s death. 

Among Buxtehude’s prolific output, Membra Jesu Nostri stands apart as something truly unique. Conceived as a whole, the work is actually a cycle of seven cantatas, each reflecting on a different part of Christ’s body on the cross. The texts of the choral movements opening and closing each cantata are Biblical quotations, while the inner movements come from the thirteenth-century poem “Salve mundi salutare” by Arnulf von Löwen. Thus, the pattern is instrumental sonata, scriptural chorus, tripartite aria, reprise of the chorus. The scriptures bracket the poetic stanzas, much as other poets and composers—notably Picander and Bach—would combine chorales and devotional texts. The generally uniform structure and the use of repetition enhances the meditative nature of the cycle, though Buxtehude frequently varied the voicing and made several deviations from the patterns he set up, lending a touch of unpredictability to the work and also leaving us with more to ponder regarding his musical commentary on the texts. 

While six of the seven parts are scored for five voices (SSATB), two violins and continuo, a full consort of viola da gamba is used in place of the violins in the most poignant of the cantatas, Ad cor, “to the heart.” Tonight’s performance will use violins and violas along with one viola da gamba to achieve the dark and sonorous sounds required in this section. 

Program notes by James Knox Sutterfield, Phil Enns, and Kathleen Allan

Matt BroughComment