Tuesday 7 March 2023

THIS IS MY BODY: Figure’s Co-Artistic Director Philip Barrett introduces their latest project, an immersive performance of Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri

The Swiss Church, London
The Swiss Church, London

After recent successes with Handel's Serse at Opera Holland Park (June 2022) and requiems by Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Fauré at North London's Union Chapel (November 2022), innovative historical performance ensemble Figure offers an immersive, surround-sound performance of Dieterich Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri at the Swiss Church on 14-15 March 2023.

Written in 1680, Buxtehude's cycle of seven cantatas has as its full title, Membra Jesu nostri patientis sanctissima (Limbs Most Holy of Our Suffering Jesus), and is described in the manuscript as a sung devotion. The stanzas of its main text are drawn from the medieval hymn Salve mundi salutare, also known as the Rhythmica oratio. Each cantata addresses a part of Jesus’ crucified body: feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart and face; in each, Biblical words referring to the limb frame verses of the hymn’s text. 

Performed by solo voices (from memory), in the warm resonance of the elegant, white-washed Swiss Church (Covent Garden), Figure’s performance will both amplify Buxtehude’s original intentions and embody its subject matter, by placing a standing audience in the body of the sound – in the heart of the Passion scene – as the singers move freely throughout the space. Directed from the chamber organ by Figure’s Musical and Co-Artistic Director, Frederick Waxman, the performance will run uninterrupted before the evening gives way to drinks and further, more informal music-making.

Here, Figure’s other Co-Artistic Director, Philip Barrett introduces the work and the performance:

Figure - This is my body
Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri (1680) is a unique piece of music. A visceral Baroque choral meditation on the crucified body of Christ, it's a sequence of seven short cantatas, each dedicated to a different aspect of Christ’s body on the cross (from His feet to His face, including His heart). Little is known about the origin and purpose of this curious work, but some clues can be found in both Buxtehude's biography and the original manuscript, which bears an incredibly earnest direction to those performing it: "to be sung with the humblest devotion of the whole heart". In these words, you can hear the voice of a composer who is not only deeply-moved by the subject matter, but who is also imploring the performers to match and magnify his intentions as they share his personal offering with the listeners. 

As a historical performance ensemble, our creative ideas stem from attempting to offer and convey something of the original context, purpose and essence of any music, as well its sound (we will be singing with 17th-century German pronunciation of Latin and using historical instruments, such as the theorbo, a long-necked lute). Over and above these aims, we also believe that creating meaningful and immersive experiences makes most music more engaging and more accessible. 

It is for all of these reasons that we wanted to share Membra Jesu Nostri in an intimate setting with little barrier between performer and audience. This is deeply personal music that seeks to bring the listener into a communion with every part the Passion, evoking the words of the Last Supper: "This is my body". That’s why we will be singing from memory, with the singers positioned around, amongst and within the audience as they share this music up-close – as they journey around Christ's afflicted body together. 

We hope that those hearing this music for the first time will go away utterly enamoured; and for ardent Buxtehude fans, we hope that they will leave all the firmer in their faith!

For more details and tickets (£10-18, inc. an offer for Under 30s and Concessions for access, students, under 18s, and anyone unwaged, unemployed or struggling with the cost of living) please visit their website.

  • Claire Ward (soprano)
  • Katie Macdonald (mezzo-soprano)
  • Tom Lilburn (countertenor)
  • Michael Bell (tenor)
  • Hugo Herman-Wilson (baritone)
Founded in 2021, in the wake of the pandemic, Figure's vision has been shaped by a burning desire to bring music back to live audiences; to offer more than be consumed at home, and to break free from traditional formalities. Figure aims to improve access to Classical music by presenting more than just concerts, but experiences, as well as through offering reduced-price tickets and taking our music to a range of stimulating and welcoming venues.

Creating experiences is central to Figure's work as a ‘historical performance’ ensemble. They are dedicated to transporting audiences to the time of the music's creation, but their endeavour reaches far beyond recreating a historical sound. Figure works imaginatively to immerse audiences in the context, atmosphere and original passion of the music: be it fashioning a secular liturgy to accompany a sacred Requiem; reuniting court music with comedic entertainment; or just in the way that the musicians are placed in the space around the audience, with no barriers to feeling, articulacy and power.

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