This weekend, a classic oratorio about the body parts of Jesus will get a modern update by a Philadelphia choir.
The Crossing choir asked seven composers to respond to the seven pieces of “Membra Jesu Nostri” (“The Limbs of Our Jesus”), a Lutheran oratorio written in 1680 by baroque composer Dietrich Buxtehude.
The music has seven sections, each focused on a different part of Jesus as he hung from the cross: feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and head. It’s both a lamentation and exaltation.
Holy hands, I embrace you,and, lamenting, I delight in you,I give thanks for the terrible wounds,the hard nails, the holy drops,shedding tears with kisses
“Almost every single movement talks about wounds. Wounds wounds wounds wounds wounds, you know?” said Donald Nally, conductor of The Crossing. “But it’s also joyful. For the German baroque Lutheran, dying is a good thing. Wounds are not, but Christ dying from them allows them to have salvation, to meet him. There is joy in the piece.”
Three years ago, Nally had an idea to blend baroque with the contemporary music, commissioning seven composers to respond to each part of Buxtehude’s oratorio, then playing them side-by-side. The result, “Seven Responses,” premieres this weekend at the Philadelphia Episcopal Church in University City.
“The whole project is looking at the way we view the suffering of others in the 18th century, and today,” said Nally.
The roster of composers is impressive: Americans David T. Little, Caroline Shaw and Lewis Spratlan; Anna Thorvaldsdottir of Iceland; Hans Thomalla of Germany; Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen of Denmark; and Santa Ratniece of Latvia.
Shaw, 28, is the youngest person to win a Pulitzer Prize for composition. She has been intimate with the Buxtehude oratorio as both vocalist and violinist. The section “To the Hands” is a personal favorite.
“There’s really simple suspension that happens in the choir, but it’s one of those moments that really carves into my musical being, into my heart,” said Shaw. “It’s just a choral suspension. I could probably live with that choral suspension for many, many hours.”
While directly referencing passages of the original by Buxtehude, Shaw added text, including pieces of the poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty, “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus.
“Thinking about the poem at the Statue of Liberty and this idea of a beckoning hand,” said Shaw. “Her beacon-hand beckons. What is it to open one’s hand to someone else beyond, to someone’s suffering, to someone in need?”
Shaw is primarily making musical connections between contemporary classical and Buxtehude’s baroque style. But Nally believes there is a subtle hint of political messaging in the piece.
“I think she’s making a statement about the time we’re living in and the discussion we’re having in the United States,” said Nally. “For me, it’s shocking and inconceivable we’re having the rhetoric we’re having.”
After the premiere in Philadelphia, the Seven Responses will be performed at New York’s Lincoln Center later this summer.