The Buxtehude Membra Jesu Nostri (The Body of Jesus, roughly speaking) is a 17th century cantata that pays symbolic homage to seven aspects of the crucified body of Jesus (feet, knees, hands, sides, chest, heart, and face). Conductor Scott Allen Jarrett has frequently performed this work on Good Friday with the choral and instrumental forces of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. So, when I was commissioned by Scott to write a new cantata that fits the seven-part structure of their Good Friday liturgy, I first consulted the text and structure of the Buxtehude, and was immediately drawn to its mystical qualities, quite unlike anything in most of the standard choral repertoire.
I decided to take the generic structure (biblical verses tied to each aspect of the body, with appropriate verses of a Latin hymn) and add to it scenes from Milton's epic masterpiece, Paradise Lost. In reading Milton's work more closely, I am deeply moved by this blind poet's vision of the failure of humanity to use its divine faculties of reason and empathy to care for and maintain the beautiful world in which we live, and the unique gift of human culture that binds us together. This story is told on two planes: one in heaven, as a dialogue between the divine hosts and God, and on the earth, where Adam and Eve are shown the future of humanity, much to their horror, and are eventually led out of Eden to the common fate and history we all share.
This text seemed especially poignant for Good Friday. It fits well with the traditional adoration of the body of Jesus, which is a metaphor for the human vessel we all inhabit, and, more broadly, the ties that bind us together as humans sharing a single planet: one body, suffering. Milton, whose eyesight was lost by a "drop serene," and for whom the lack of eyesight leaves the knowledge of nature "[a] wisdom at one entrance quite shut out," has a powerful inner vision, in which humans are left "free to fall" at the hands of their own designs. Compassion exists as a free choice to all of us as a species, and we are solely to blame for the shortcomings we see in the world.