by Ken Myers
[This article originally appeared in the March/April 2016 issue of Touchstone magazine.]
The term “Passion” is used to describe both the sufferings of Jesus on the Cross and a genre of pictorial, dramatic, or musical works recounting those sufferings. Musical Passions typically follow the narrative structure of one of the Gospel accounts of the events of Holy Week. They present a narrated story — the characters portrayed by singers often include an Evangelist as a narrator sharing the stage with Jesus and Judas, Peter and Pilate.
Early Passion settings were simply chanted, but by the late fifteenth century, more elaborate “through-composed” settings began to emerge, which made room for distinctive musical devices to provide an expressive interpretation of the events. With the emergence of the “oratorio” Passion in the seventeenth century, commentary and reflection on the significance of the story could be provided by singers representing the community of faith or the individual soul responding to the details of the most moving and momentous of all stories.
So, for example, in J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, after Peter’s third denial is described, the tenor Evangelist tells us that Peter went out and wept bitterly. At this point, the story gets put on pause and Bach offers one of the most poignant movements of the work, the alto aria “Erbarme dich.” “Have mercy, my God, for my tears’ sake; look hither, heart and eyes weep bitterly before thee. Have mercy, my God, for my tears’ sake.” This aria is not strictly an alto solo, but a duet between violin and alto, both given melodic lines that express tension and torment. As listeners, we enter into Peter’s distress and are encouraged through the music to acknowledge instances of similar betrayal or faithlessness in our own lives.
This aria is followed by a chorale — the story is still freeze-framed — in which a choir proclaims the comforting word of the gospel of grace: “Although I have strayed from Thee, yet I have returned again; for thy Son has reconciled us through his agony and mortal pain. I do not deny my guilt but thy grace and favor is far greater than the sin which I ever confess in myself.” And then the Evangelist takes up the story again.
A Passion without Narrative
There are also musical works that focus attention on Christ’s suffering on the Cross by stripping away all the dramatic events that culminated in the Crucifixion, and attending precisely and solely to the bloodied flesh and anguished spirit. Consider Membra Jesu Nostri (“The Limbs of Our Jesus”), the hour-long cycle of seven cantatas written in about 1680 by Dieterich Buxtehude (ca. 1637-1707). Best known as an organist and composer for organ, the Danish-German Buxtehude was also a prolific composer of vocal music, and in recent years, performances and recordings of Membra Jesu Nostri have become increasingly common.
Sometimes referred to as a Passion — despite the absence of any narrative elements — Membra Jesu Nostri is a non-liturgical musical setting of a seven canto poem, Salve mundi salutare (“Hail, Salvation of the World”), most likely written by the early-thirteenth-century monk Arnulf of Leuven, abbot of the Cisterian monastery of Villers-la-Ville. The poem is a series of meditations on seven members of the body of Jesus on the Cross — feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and head. (Paul Gerhardt’s hymn, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” was inspired by the last of these meditations.)
Each of the seven cantos addresses a member of Jesus’ body, and each begins with a biblical passage that mystically connects with that member. For example, the fourth section, Ad latus, “Upon the side,” opens with the full ensemble of five voices singing from the Song of Solomon: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. O my dove, thou art in the cleft of the rock, in the secret places.” And that cleft, it happens, is the side of the crucified Christ:
Hail to thee, side of my savior, in which the sweetness of honey is hidden, in which the power of love is revealed, from which the fount of blood flows forth and cleanses impure hearts.
Behold, I draw near to you, be merciful, though I have sinned; with humble countenance I gladly stand before you to contemplate your wounds.
Jesus, when the hour of my death draws near, let me stand by your side. When I die, let my spirit enter into you, lest some savage lion fall upon me, rather let me dwell with you for ever
The musical forces called for in Membra Jesu Nostri are relatively lean: five vocal parts (which are today often sung one voice per part) are accompanied by three strings and basso continuo (except for the sixth canto, “Upon the heart,” which really is the heart of the whole piece, and which calls for a larger consort of five viols). While his organ music is often magnificent and majestic, in Membra Jesu Nostri, Buxtehude fittingly achieves a quieter intensity; the musical expressiveness here is delicately meditative, not operatic. I am reminded of a description by Romano Guardini of the nature of emotional expression in Christian liturgy: “Emotion glows in its depths, but it smolders merely like the fiery heart of the volcano, whose summit stands out clear and serene against the quiet sky.”
In presenting us with a Passion without the traditional plot-line, Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri allows us to experience a different dimension of time, reliving the moments of suffering on Calvary simultaneously with our present moment of repentance and gratitude and with the hour of our death and into the forever of blessedness.
The text to this work is presented here, along with an embedded recording of the work.