These sacred hands

Posted on: 30 March 2021, by :

One of the seventeenth century’s most remarkable artistic creations concerning the Passion is the cycle of seven cantatas called Membra Jesu nostri patientis sanctissima (‘The most holy limbs of our suffering Jesus’), composed in Lübeck by Dietrich Buxtehude (c1637-1707). Buxtehude’s manuscript of the work is dated 1680 and dedicated to his friend Gustaf Düben, director of music at the Swedish court and the German church in Stockholm, in whose personal music collection it was preserved. The cantatas each present a portion of the medieval poem Salve mundi salutare (once attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux but probably by Arnulf of Leuven) as a meditation that addresses, in turn, Christ’s feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart and face. Although for today we single out the third work, Ad manus, all seven are music crafted similarly, with delicate features delivered largely through solo expression that helps the listener to internalize and apply the texts. They follow a structure in common. Each has a Biblical quotation as a rhetorical framing device, a concerto sung both before and after the portion of the poem: for Ad manus it is Zechariah 13:6, What are these wounds in the middle of your hands? In every case the portion of the poem itself is set as an aria in three strophes, where each strophe is followed by an instrumental ritornello.

Although this unique composition may be claimed to be Lutheran (both Buxtehude and Düben worked for Protestant churches), it’s a fine example of just how permeable the cultural parameters of European music were at the time, and how devotional music that was not liturgical could transcend technical norms and escape religious conformity. The predominant style to be heard here—especially in this beautiful strophic aria in triple metre, with ritornellos—is that of the secular cantatas of Giacomo Carrissimi from faraway Rome.

What are these wounds in the middle of your hands?

Hail Jesus, Good Shepherd,
exhausted by the agony,
as you were tortured on the cross,
and to its wood nailed,
your sacred hands outstretched.
- ritornello -

Blessed hands, I embrace you,
and delight in weeping on you.
I offer thanks for the beatings, 
the nails, the sacred drops of blood,
mingling my tears with kisses.
- ritornello -

Washed in your blood
I put myself wholly in your trust.
May these sacred hands of yours
protect me, Jesu Christ,
in times of greatest peril.
- ritornello -

What are these wounds in the middle of your hands?
Quid sunt plagae istae in medio manuum tuarum?

Salve Jesu pastor bone, 
Fatigatus in agone
Qui per lignum es distractus 
Et ad lignum es compactus 
Expansis sanctis manibus.
- ritornello -

Manus sanctae, vos amplector
Et gemendo condelector
Grates ago plagis tantis
Clavis duris, guttis sanctis
Dans lacrimas cum osculis.
- ritornello -

In cruore tuo lotum
Me commendo tibi totum.
Tuae sanctae manus istae
Me defendant, Jesu Christe
Extremis in periculis.
- ritornello -

Quid sunt plagae istae in medio manuum tuarum?

* *  This post, on Tuesday of Holy Week, is in a series for Lent to Easter, 2021 * *

Above: Buxtehude, Membra Jesu nostri, BuxWV 75 (1680): cantata III, Ad manus, in a fine concert from 2019 given by the Collegium singers and instrumentalists of the College of Music, University of North Texas.

Below: III, Ad manus, in a recording made in 2004 by members of Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, directed by René Jacobs, in Payerne, Switzerland.

For more music for Holy Week, see the series from 2020.