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The first evangelical oratorio.

I wish to honor Mark Bangert upon his retirement with a discussion of Dietrich Buxtehude's oratorio Membra Jesu nostri. In this, the first oratorio of the evangelical church of Germany, the heart and core of the gospel is proclaimed. A lasting close relationship between us began when Mark was a student at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis; the friendship has endured with collegiality through more than four decades.

The musical heritage of such evangelical masters as Schutz, Schein, Scheidt, Hammerschmidt, Hassler, Ebeling, Praetorius, Bach, Buxtehude, Brahms, Mozart, Luther, Gerhardt, Distler, Micheelsen, and Bender flows into the mainstream of Mark's life and work. What was begun in his home life, stressed in early schooling, continued through secondary, college, and seminary education, tested and tried by experience--all of this became focused and expressed in his ministry. The current in which he swims today continues to flow into mature reflection and expression that is always Christocentric.

Good church music is sacramental in content. That is, it is a conveyor for God's good news of salvation in a needy world; sacrificial response in and by faith ascends with praise and adoration to the Highest One, who alone sits at the right hand of God. Lectures, sermons, and innumerable rehearsals are invested in the action of sacrificial life. In such a life, Mark has raised many questions about multicultural worship and how such worship becomes possible. In his investigations and teaching, Christocentricity is the magnetic pull upon which the swinging needle in his compass comes to a rest, This gospel message, proclaimed in Buxtehude's oratorio centuries earlier, has made it possible for Mark to stay the course in the midst of every current.

The limbs of our sacred suffering Jesus

Buxtehude's oratorio Membra Jesu nostri patientis sanctissima (The limbs of our sacred suffering Jesus) was composed about 1680. With this dedicatory intention in mind and heart, we enter a brief study of Buxtehude's first evangelical (Lutheran) oratorio. Recently it has been made available in a superb edition by Carus Verlag, Stuttgart, Germany. The edition consists of a full score for the conductor and organist; a piano/vocal score with all of the choruses, arias for soloists and trios; a choral edition for SSATB, without orchestral ritornelli, solo and trio arias; orchestral parts for two violins; violone (cello); contra bass; and, for Part VI, five gambas. A critical apparatus points out problems and solutions related to the publication.

Buxtehude added to the original score the note, "humillima Totius Cordis Devotione decantata," that is, "sung wholeheartedly in most humble devotion." From this remark and the score's musical content it can be said that the work is not a lament, a dirge, or a pietistic gush of emotion as the holy limbs of the Savior are viewed. Rather, the music suggests that it is an outpouring of praise, a cascade of thanksgiving; in it there is a plea for a victorious death. The seven cantatas that constitute the oratorio are meditations upon passages from Holy Scripture that demonstrate Buxtehude's biblical scholarship.

Buxtehude, no doubt, chose the seven passages that form the backbone of the oratorio, each one a surprise in its own way: nowhere else are the chosen passages associated with Jesus' passion and death. The Bible verses that occur at the head of every cantata, following a brief and appropriate sonata, demonstrate Buxtehude's unusual knowledge of the Holy Scriptures and his appropriation of them. Buxtehude's familiarity with the Old Testament indicates how he saw the history of Israel as prototype of God's redemptive plan. The choruses containing the seven passages are repeated at the conclusion of each cantata, thus emphasizing the main theme and its intent.

The medieval poem Salve mundi salutare! (Hail! Savior of the world!) was composed in Latin verse about 1250 A.D. by Arnulf von Lowen. It often is incorrectly attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Doubtless he quoted from Salve munde salutare, but it has since been proven that Arnulf was its author. The poem became immensely popular throughout Europe in the seventeenth century, both in its Latin original and in vernaculars, especially in the German language. Paul Gerhardt based his O Haupt vollBlut und Wunden squarely on Arnulf's Latin poem. Each cantata as a whole becomes a basis for adoration, prayer, praise, and petition. These remain useful today--the cantatas are not antediluvian, archaic, or old-fashioned.

More than two hundred extant choral works from Buxtehude's pen are in Latin poetry. These are Vulgate psalm renditions, many of which are for solo voice, others involving chorus and orchestra. New Testament canticles form another cluster of Latin texts in his music. Still others are from other literature, such as the case in point here. Such practice indicates a daily use of Latin in his life, as was the case with Martin Luther and Johann Sebastian Bach. The use of Latin connotes the continuity of the church with its Western mother.

Each of the seven cantatas is headed by a sonata for instruments alone. Usually the model is for two violins, a violone (cello), contra. bass, the fundamental (the bass notes on which the chord structure is formed) playing an octave below the cello much of the time. However, there are certain parts in which the violone has a unique and separate function apart from the bass. At times the organ supplies the accompaniment of the arias without a cello or bass undergriding the bass continuo line.

Following is an outline typical of all seven cantatas that constitute the oratorio.

1. Sonata--Instruments alone. Cantata Nos. 1 through 5 and No. 7 are for violins 1, 2; violone, and organ, often with string bass playing the bass line. No. 6 is scored for five gambas and no violins.

2. Concerto--A five-part chorus, SSATB, and instruments perform the biblical text.

3. Aria--Solo voices (SSA or ATB), or trios of these voices, perform short Latin poetic strophes. As a rule, there are three arias for varying voices, short in duration, some of which have ritornelli (short passages by instruments alone). Selected strophes of Arnulf's poem form the textual bases for all of the arias.

4. Concerto--No. 2 is repeated by the tutti (entire) ensemble. The exception is No. 7, in which a brilliant and florid "Amen" is added.

The first movement of all seven cantatas is a sonata. These short movements act like a prelude, introducing the full chorus with instruments before the biblical passage that follows. Insightful reflections on the spiritual content of what is to immediately follow constitute the musical content of each sonata. The music, in and of itself, is conducive to meditation.

Opera had been introduced one decade earlier in Hamburg, a city near Lubeck where Buxtehude lived and worked. He may have served as harpsichordist occasionally for the opera company. From the overtures to operas Buxtehude may have learned the importance and function of an overture and incorporated its form into his many cantatas.

The second movement to the seven cantatas is a concerto, not to be confused with the longer work for solo instrument yet to come in the late Baroque period. The concerto here is tutti section, that is, for chorus and instruments. A selected passage from Scripture is its text.

An aria follows the chorus, with stringed accompaniment. The aria sections of the cantatas are subdivided into three parts, either for solo voice or for combinations of three voices. Meditations that contain aspects of adoration, praise, thanksgiving, imploration, or benediction come in between the outer framework. The music is set to the poetic strophes by Arnulf.

The opening concerto is then repeated in all of the seven cantatas. Thus every cantatas is framed by the Scripture passage. In this way, Buxtehude displays an adeptness not only as a mature musician and composer but also as one who is steeped in Scripture, history, theology, and Latin poetry.

Membra Jesu nostri draws together seven cantatas into one 65-minute major oratorio. The worshiper's attention is not challenged by long and involved arias and choruses. The work became an attractive oratorio in the worship cycle of Lent/Easter from 1680 onward at the St. Mary Church in Lubeck.

Buxtehude's organ-performance ability was famed throughout Germany and surrounding countries, but it is possible that the fame of this oratorio also induced Bach to make his well-known journey to visit Buxtehude in the North German city in 1705. At the age of twenty the unmarried Bach asked for permission to be absent from his post in Arnstadt to visit Buxtehude for a period of three or four weeks. He walked 450 kilometers one way to make the trip. He became so intrigued that he stayed nearly four months--and was severely reprimanded when he returned home.

Many traces of Buxtehude's influence may be found in Bach's music. Perhaps foremost is the element of sophisticated writing of contrapuntal style in the organ music of Buxtehude. Furthermore, modulations to both neighboring keys and far-off unrelated key signatures are commonplace in Buxtehude's organ works. Bach learned such things from Buxtehude, which he combined quickly with techniques learned from Pachelbel through Bach's older brother, Johann Christoph.

Buxtehude's idea of combining numerous cantatas into one large oratorio had wide influence. It may be that Bach received the idea for his Christmas Oratorio from Buxtehude. Much like the oratorio under discussion here, Bach combined six cantatas for the various feasts and festivals of Christmas, New Year, and Epiphany into one oratorio. Bach also came away from Lubeck with the idea of moving entire motets used for funerals, weddings, and other occasions into cantatas and other large works. Some motet-like structures also are transferred into larger works, such as Bach's four Missa brevis settings. Bach had to notice the beginning and ending signatures of Buxtehude's writings; each contained "INJ," in nomine Jesu ("in the name of Jesus"), and/or "SDG," Soli Deo Gloria ("to God alone be glory").

Buxtehude's compositions for solo voice

Much of Buxtehude's best composition is for solo voice. About two-thirds of his vocal music is either for single voice or chamber movements in the form of duets and trios. Most often there is basso continuo (either organ alone, with cello, or with cello and bass) accompaniment with one, two, and more treble instruments playing descants.

Because more than half of Buxtehude's choral works are for a single voice, in today's terminology, it is found that these often are lumped together under the generic title "Cantata for Solo Voice," or, more simply, "Solo Cantata." However, three groups with variant styles and titles were composed by Buxtehude--concertos, ciaconnas, and arias--all of them published today as "cantatas."

When Buxtehude captioned a section with the word concerto, it applies to settings of prose texts from biblical and/or extrabiblical sources. It is written for either an ensemble of voices and instruments or for solo voice. For Buxtehude concerto is a choral structure in his many writings.

Furthermore, the concerto form is durch-komponiert, that is, through-composed, without repeats of sections, and it is fugal and contrapuntal in style. The aria form, on the other hand, contains two and three repeats of the same musical phrases with identical ritornelli for orchestra. In these repeated sections the selection of the voice may change, for example, from soprano 1 to soprano 2, then to bass for the third strophe. Concerto form religiously ignores the repeated device and is through-composed. Single words in the concerto form become repeated, dramatized, underscored, and highlighted by repetitions. Single words in the aria form are seldom repeated. As in liturgical settings each statement and word occurs a single time.

Ciaconnas are the second definable group of solo chamber songs for single voice, or for two, three, four, even five voices accompanied by various instruments, usually violin 1,2, and violone; Buxtehude favors the sound of solo gamba (cello). He draws texts from German Psalmody in this grouping. Six of his compositions are known as ciaconna. In them the base line contains an ostinato bass, that is, notes that are repeated stubbornly (without change) over and over again. The scheme of the sequence of notes might be very simple, employing but a few basic sounds upon which agreeable harmony is created. Some schemes become long and more involved, and they also are repeated many times over.

The third grouping of songs that are mostly for solo voice are called arias. The texts are original, extrabiblical poems in Latin and/or German. Songs in aria form composed by Buxtehude that are still extant number 41.

Each of the seven cantatas that constitute the oratorio Membra Jesu nostri contains movements of all three forms. Concerti frame every cantata; these are sung immediately after the sonata. They are repeated again as in a summary at the conclusion. The aria formats follow the concerto. Almost all of the arias are presented three times, each time by a different voice. Buxtehude's settings of Arnulf's poetic strophes are brief, but always interesting. The ostinato bass lines occur infrequently in the oratorio.

Buxtehude loved the solo voice for its expressive qualities. Perhaps the number of singers in Lubeck were fewer at his time; this may be a contributing factor as to why he chose to write often for the solo voice. Singers in his choir numbered sixteen or fewer. The size of the orchestra is small as well, perhaps even one on a part, not exceeding three violinists on each of their two parts. As in the music of Heinrich Schutz, the solo voice became the musical medium for portrayal and communication of both the prose and poetic texts. Similar reasons may be the cause for his numerous creations for ensemble and solo stringed instruments.

My English translation of the oratorio follows. Brief musical and interpretive comments are given at the beginning of each cantata, stated in outline form.

The oratorio

In nomine Jesu [Buxtehude's caption]

I. Ad pedes--Meditation stirred by the feet of Jesus.

The first cantata is scored for two violins, viola da gamba (cello), five voices (SSATB), and basso continuo. Like another passage, from Isaiah 52:7, Buxtehude's music calls to mind the "feet of him who brings good tidings," that is, the messages of prophets who called Israel to repentance, effective in their time, but whose fulfillment was yet to come. Thus "in the fullness of time," the one whose feet walked among God's people validated the words of all prophecy. Therefore, the church has engaged in a neverending walk, a procession moving through time to the ends of the earth, following in the footsteps of the Savior.

1. Sonata (instrumental introduction: two violins, viola da gamba, basso continuo)

2. Tutti (entire ensemble, SSATB and strings)
 Behold, upon the mountains the feet of
 him who brings good tidings and
 proclaims peace!--Nahum 1:15


3. Aria (The following poem was authored by Arnulf von Lowen, 1250 A.D.)

a) Soprano 1
 Hail! Savior of the world;
 Hail! dearest Jesus!
 I would like to hang with you upon
 your cross.
 Verily! You know why;
 Grant me your strength.


b) Soprano 2
 The nails in your feet, the severe
 beatings,
 And the deep wounds,
 I view them with deepest emotion;
 Your fear filled appearance is a
 Memorial of your wounds.


c) Bass
 Dear Jesus, merciful God,
 I cry out to you, I am the one who is
 guilty,
 Show yourself to me in mercy,
 Do not dismiss me, the unworthy one,
 From your holy feet.


4. Tutti. The text from No. 2 is repeated.

5. Tutti. The text from No. 3 is repeated.

II. Ad genua--Meditation stirred by the consideration of Jesus' knees.

6. Sonata in tremulo--Tutti instruments. Tremulo, the bowing of the musician's right arm, began as early as in the seventeenth century, as the scores of Monteverdi and Heinrich Schutz attest. The sound is achieved by rapid up and down strokes of the bow of stringed instruments. The strokes create a shimmering effect. Jesus' knees no doubt weakened and possibly trembled because nails pierced his feet. Buxtehude, however, brings to mind the dandling of a child upon the knee of a mother. The picture is of God caring for Israel, his child, and jostling the child at the knee. This is the ultimate good that derives from the crucifixion of Jesus for God's entire creation. Thus the back-and-forth motion of extremely quiet tremolo movement and the quickly paced allegro sections suggest Buxtehude's reading of God's action as presented in this brief cantata.

7. Tutti (SSATB)
 You will nurse and be carried upon her arm,
 and you will be dandled on her
 knee. --Isaiah 66:12H


8. a) Aria--Tenor

(Poem by Arnulf von Lowen)
 Hail, Jesus! King of the saints,
 You welcome hope of sinners,
 Hanging upon the wood of the cross,
 As a guilty man, yet true God,
 Falling down on buckling knees.


b) Aria--Alto
 How shall I respond to you,
 Oh faint in action, hard of heart?
 How shall I repay your love,
 You, who elected to die for me,
So that I may not suffer two deaths?


c) Aria--Trio: Soprano 1, 2, and Bass
 In order to beg you with pure mind
 --This is my first concern.
 It is neither work nor beneath dignity
 But I will be cured and made clean
 As I embrace you.


9. Tutti. No. 7 is repeated.

III. Ad manus--Meditation while considering the hands of Jesus.

10. Sonata

Zechariah 13:6b contains a stunning answer to a question: "Say to any one who asks, 'these wounds I received in the house of my friends.'" The people to whom the prophet is speaking inflicted these wounds.

During the postexilic period, Israel became restless and disobedient to Yahweh. The prophet here proclaims that the Day of the Lord is at hand and calls for change within Israel's behavior. Applying this passage to Christ, the reference is to wounds inflicted by nails in Jesus' hands. The sin of humankind is the cause of such cruelty. The quiet joy contained in the threefold aria that follows seems to indicate that Buxtehude saw the gospel side of those wounds. In them he found vindication for the believer, granting comfort at the hour of death.

11. Tutti (SSATB)
 What are these wounds in the palm of your hands?--Zechariah 13:6


12. Aria (Poem by Arnulf von Lowen)

a) Soprano 1
 Hail Jesus, good shepherd!
 Fatigued in agony (struggles),
 You who are torn asunder on the wood,
 Yet affixed to the wood,
 By your outstretched hands.


b) Soprano 2
 Sacred hands, I embrace you,
 And though lamenting I find delight in
 you,
 I give thanks for these severe blows,
 For the hard nails and holy blood,
 I embrace you with tear-filled eyes.


c) Trio: Alto, Tenor, Bass
 Washed in blood from your wounds
 I commend myself totally to you.
 May your holy hands
 Defend me, Jesus Christ.
 In my last hour of distress.


13. Tutti (No. 11 is repeated by the entire ensemble)
 IV. Adlatus--Meditation about the wound in Jesus' side.


14. Sonata

The first two chords recall the opening appeal, "Behold, Look!" See the rugged clefts in the rock and protection of a cave. These are pictured in the music by leaps of jagged octaves played by the violins with rugged accentuation. That angularity continues into the following scene presented in No. 15, "Arise, my love." There, blood mingled with water flows from the pierced side of Jesus. But the mixture is not bitter, it is "sweetness of honey,"with power to wash dirty hearts clean. Therein lies the protection of the cave.

The jagged leaps of octaves in the violin lines depict the rugged clefts within the rocks. What better protection can come than that which comes as a free gift through faith in Christ on the cross? From an adoring heart flows the adoration expressed in the poem of Arnulf, wherein the bride/bridegroom picture of Christ and the church continues.

15. Tutti ensemble (SSATB)
 Arise, my love,
 my fair one, and come away,
 O my dove into the clefts of the
 rock, into the covert of the cliff.
 --Song of Solomon 2:13-14


6. Aria

a) Soprano 1
 Hail, side of my Savior,
 where the sweetness of honey lies concealed,
 where power of love resides.
 where from the spring of your blood gushes forth
 that which washes a dirty heart clean.


b) Trio: Alto, Tenor, Bass
 Behold, I approach you,
 Spare me, Jesus, when I fail.
 Modesty, indeed, is my appearance as
 I come to you freely
 to behold your wounds.


c) Soprano 2
 At the hour of death may my soul
 dwell, Jesus, in your bosom (side).
 At the time of expiration may [I] hurry
 to you
 and thus avoid attack by the lion,
 and on the contrary, remain with you
 forever.


17. Tutti (No. 15 is repeated by the ensemble)

V. Ad pectus. Reverence for Christ is wrought by consideration of nursing infants. Buxtehude's choice of 1 Peter 2:2, 3 for meditation at this point is unique. Newly instructed Christians baptized at Eastertide are encouraged to grow in their salvation "like newly born infants who long for their mother's breast milk." The music of the strings and organ suggest youthfulness, growth, and strength.

18. Sonata

19. Trio: Alto, Tenor, Bass
 Like newly born infants,
 long for the pure spiritual milk,
 so that by it you may grow into salvation;
 for you have tasted the
 kindness of the Lord. --I Peter 2:2,3


20. Aria (Poem by Arnulf von Lowen)

a) Alto
 Hail, my salvation, dear Lord,
 dear Jesus, my beloved.
 Hail, most revered breast,
 With trembling hand do I touch you,
 O source of love.


b) Tenor
 My heart, O cleanse it pure,
 On fire, pious, and filled with sighs.
 Voluntarily I cast aside my own
 desires,
 Always conforming to you,
 Joining in your wondrous virtue.


c) Bass
 Hail, true temple of God,
 I pray, have mercy upon me.
 You, the seat of all highest goodness,
 Make me one of the elected chosen ones,
 O precious vessel, O God of all.


21. Trio: Alto, Tenor, Bass. No. 19 is repeated.

VI. Ad cor--Meditation upon consideration of the heart of Jesus.

22. Sonata. For five viola da gamba voices and basso continuo with organ. The sonata vacillates between quiet mysterioso and vivace movement, a picture that connotes total serenity, yet there is life. Buxtehude's notation indicates the identical tremolo bowing effects as in number II. It describes a scene that hangs between life and death.

The scenario seems just right for the content of the text from the Song of Solomon that follows. Yahweh speaks to his people, "You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride." Buxtehude makes intimacy all the more effective by writing for a solo trio, not the tutti chorus, in both Nos. V and VI. The metaphor contains a surprisingly new designation for God's people, "my sister."

23. Trio for three voices (SSB)
 You have ravished my heart,
 my sister, my bride, you have ravished my heart.
 --Song of Solomon 4:9


24. Aria (Poem by Arnulf von Lowen)

a) Soprano 1
 I greet you, O highest king of my heart,
 I salute you with a happy heart,
 I am delighted to embrace you,
 And I am convinced in my heart
 That I speak intimately with you.


b) Soprano 2
 Let your love permeate my heart,
 May it reside in its deepest most recess,
 May your love carry over to mine
 Where your heart is torn apart,
 Languishing wounded by love.


c) Bass
 I cry out with heart's lively voice,
 dear heart, that I love you,
 Be inclined to my heart,
 So that it may be enabled to repose
 In devotion on your breast.


25. Trio: Soprano 1, 2, Bass. No. 23 is repeated.

VII. Adfaciem. Meditation on Jesus' countenance offers blessing to the believer.

26. Sonata. For two violins and basso continuo. Three times phrases consisting of rapid sixteenth notes and dotted rhythms are employed in the brief introduction. Could Buxtehude here have hidden a symbol for three persons of the Holy Trinity within the brief movement? Baroque composers often hid symbols in phrases, numbers of measures, numbers of beats per measure, accidentals added, then erased. The Savior's countenance here is beheld with joy and delight. Bright beams illuminate life and its way.

It is noteworthy that a worshiper who beholds the countenance of the dying Savior may not have chosen Psalm 31:16 for meditation at this point. Some may have chosen a more somber verse learned perhaps in confirmation class. Buxtehude, however, throughout this work stresses the gospel aspect of each event. The mercy and loving kindness of God is emphasized everywhere in Buxtehude's music.

Tutti (SSATB)
 Let your face shine on your servant,
 save me by your steadfast love. --
 Psalm 31:16


28. Aria (ATB) (Poem by Arnulf von Lowen)

a) Trio: Alto, Tenor, Bass
 Hail, head, streaming full of blood,
 Crowned totally with thorns,
 Disfigured, wounded,
 Beaten with a rod,
 Face washed with spit


b) alto
 While it's necessary for me to die,
 Do not be far from me
 In that horrible hour of death.
 Come, Jesus, do not delay,
 Remain faithful to me and liberate me.


c) Tutti chorus and ensemble
 You order departure for me,
 Dear Jesus, then appear to me,
 O beloved one, Whom I want to embrace;
 You show yourself extended
 On the cross for my salvation.


29. Tutti ensemble Amen.

The last three strophes, Aria No. 28 a, b, c, and the Amen to Arnulf's poem are composed in triplum meters: 6/4 (3/2 in cadencial measures). The major pulse is triplum, three distinct beats in every measure. Hence the question is raised: Does Buxtehude in subtle manner suggest by this dance form that the blessing is by the Holy Trinity?

The music remains vivid, alive, and joyous throughout the last two movements, that sentiment especially underscored in the Amen section.

Finally, note that all of the seventh cantata is cast in C minor--a serious and somber key ordinarily. Yet Buxtehude maintains joy throughout. This key shouldbe signed with the signature of three flats--that of C minor. But there are only two written flats in the signature; one flat, the E-flat, is missing. Bach does the same thing in his Passion according to St. Matthew, and several other scores as well: One flat is not in the signature. It disappears from the proper signature loci. Therefore, it must be written singly into the score over and over, hundreds of times, in each voice of the manuscript.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It is this author's conjecture that this is possibly a way for Bach and Buxtehude to say with the angel: "He is risen! He is not here! He is ascended!"

Robert Bergt

The American Kantorei Conductor and Music Director St. Louis, Missouri
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Author:Bergt, Robert
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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