Monarchy and monotheism are 'Siamese twins,' conjoined at the breast and sharing a single heart. If there's anything the history of the past two hundred fifty years has proven, it's that no surgery can successfully separate them. We music lovers are essentially still monarchists and monotheists; we have enshrined our monarchs and we tend to guard their sanctity with our listening lives.
JS Bach's coronation as the supreme deity of German Baroque was not unpolitical; the cabal of king-makers were chiefly North German Lutheran nationalist musicologists. In no way do I wish to dethrone Bach. Bach is incomparable, and yet not beyond comparison. I'm sure I'll be accused of treason and heresy, but to my democratic ears the music of Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) compares quite well with that of the 50-years younger composer who walked all the way across Germany just to hear him play the organ. For most of the 20th Century, and for the majority of music lovers today, the adulation of Bach has precluded the recognition that Buxtehude, Fux, Pachelbel, and others deserve in the pantheon of major composers.
"Membra Jesu Nostri" is a cycle of seven concertante cantatas for five voices and chamber orchestra, based on mystical devotional Latin poems by Bernard of Clairvaux. Each cantata pays devotion to a 'member' of the crucified Messiah's body: feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and face. The whole cycle reminds me strongly of Joseph Haydn's sublime "Seven Last Words," written a hundred years later. Both works are sustained expressions of awe and reverence, composed entirely in meditative adagio tempi yet without sounding the least bit sluggish or maudlin. Though Buxtehude was a Dane who spent his entire career in a small triangle of North Germany and Denmark, his vocal music was thoroughly cosmopolitan, far more so than the devoutly provincial Bach. "Membra Jesu Nostri" is utterly Italianate in expression, revealing very clearly Buxtehude's inheritance of the style of Heinrich Schütz.
There are multiple recordings of "Membra Jesu Nostri" available, including a choral performance by The Sixteen. This music, in my opinion, must be sung one on a part, as it is on this CD by René Jacobs and Concerto Vocale. The five singers must be both artful soloists and cohesive ensemblists. Sopranos Martina Bovet and Maria Kiehr, haute-contre Andreas Scholl, tenor Gerd Türk, and basse Ulrich Messthaler fill both roles preternaturally. There are some strikingly forward-looking harmonic passages, especially in "Ad Cor" (to the Heart), which demand absolutely perfect pitch control, at 'chorton' mean temperament. but this ensemble is up to the task and more. Recorded in 1990, this performance should have become a classic; I'm grateful to Harmonia Mundi for re-releasing it in the economical 'musique d'abord' series, and with full texts! There is also a DVD available, conducted by Jacobs, which may be exactly the same performance though I haven't examined it. Either format will serve, I promise, to democratize your sense of musical genius.