Hans Thomalla's 'I come near you'; over a landscape of centuries

Words. Nearly everything we do at The Crossing has to do with composers’ choices of – and reactions to – words. This is certainly not unique to new music and, as much as I love to ponder the decisions of our commissioned composers, I equally love to imagine the process by which Bach chose the chorales to accompany the librettos for his passions – how thoughtful those decisions are and how those choices bring the libretto clarity and focus. Similarly, in his The Little Match Girl Passion, David Lang reconsiders Bach’s decisions, modifies texts of the elder’s St. Matthew Passion, and then marries them perfectly to the story of the suffering match girl.

Buxtehude made a number of seminal decisions in forming the book for his seven-cantata Membra Jesu Nostri. The work is unique and historically significant; seven individual cantatas, each with its own series of choruses, arias, duets, and trios, assembled as a large, cohesive whole describing a single event – the suffering Jesus on the cross. As such, and with no other surviving precursor, it is the first known Lutheran oratorio – a form that would expand quickly, culminating in Bach’s masterpieces just forty years later. Buxtehude was clearly inspired to make this leap by an equally extraordinary Medieval poem, Salve mundi salutare, attributed to Amulf of Leuven, d. 1250. Leuven’s poem is divided into seven cantos, each with five strophes. Each canto is named for one of the limbs of Jesus on the cross. Buxtehude set a pattern for the cantatas of his oratorio, imposing on himself from the outset the necessity of decisions: what biblical text will choose to open each work (usually in a five-voice concerto), and which three of the five strophes of each canto will he set (usually as arias for 1-3 voices with ritornello interludes).

The selection of the biblical texts is of fundamental importance to his purpose; they open each cantata and in most cases the ‘biblical’ concerto returns at the end of the cantata to provide a balanced structure and to ensure that the focus is on scripture, with the ancient medieval poem as a reflection on that text (and not the other way around, which is an important point, when considering that far greater musical time is devoted to the poem).

This is where my study gets really fun and brings the whole project into my daily life. It is so interesting to see the choices that Buxtehude made (the Bible is a big book when one is looking for just seven short verses). And, it’s equally interesting to see what choices our composers have made in response.  

For Mvt. 4, To the Sides, Buxtehude chose stanzas of the canto that speak of love and the comfort of the savior, found in the exposed wound in his side.

Hail, side of the Savior,
in which the honey of sweetness is hidden,
in which the power of love is exposed,
from which gushes the spring of blood
that cleans the dirty hearts

Lo I approach You,
Pardon, Jesus, if I sin,
With reverent countenance
freely I come to You
to behold Your wounds

In the hour of death, may my soul
Enter, Jesus, Your side
Hence dying may it go into You,
Lest the cruel lion seize it,
But let it dwell with You

He chose to introduce this mediation on ‘the side’ with a passage from the Song of Songs.

 Arise, my love,
my beautiful one, and come,
my dove in the clefts of the rock,
in the hollow of the cliff

Here, the author of Song of Songs calls to the loved one – a dove nestled safely in the cleft and hollow of the cliff. Contemplating the lacerated side of Jesus, Buxtehude turned to wisdom writing of the Old Testament in the uniquely erotic book attributed to Solomon. The connection is both subtle and inspired and brings a remarkable intimacy to the cantata. In the last stanza of the 13th-century poem the faithful follower asks that s/he be allowed to enter into the side of Jesus to dwell – as the dove dwells in the cliff in Songs. We hear a call and response between the two texts, with the author of Songs (writing sometime before the 2nd century BCE): making the offer ''arise…and come'' that is answered millennia later with ''freely I come to You.'' Over a landscape of centuries, longing is met with assent, desire with affirmation.

This is the line on which Hans Thomalla focuses in his libretto. Translated as ''I come near you,'' these four words extend the timespan yet another 400 years, reaching from Hans back to Buxtehude, who reached back to Leuven’s Salve mundi salutare and found a sister text in the much earlier Song of Songs. The composers commune over a distance of a few centuries, while the authors commune over a few thousand years – remarkable, in that this emotional context (desire, the desire for comfort, compassion, intimacy, salvation) occupies a place in the human condition of every era, at any time. We converse with our ancestors through our shared emotional understandings. That is a central scheme of Seven Responses, reaching across ages to explore how we observe the suffering of others. The two texts of Buxtehude’s work contain a question and response, and Hans has deftly observed this invitation to base his Response around it: ''I come near you.'' The line appears four times in his libretto, which freely alternates back and forth between the two ancient texts of To the Sides; and, following on Buxtehude’s structure, he refers back to the biblical text at the end of his work – not as a reprise, but rather as a kind of purification of the content down to its most basic form – the object, ''My love/My beautiful.''  Hans writes:

In a way the piece, its text, its message is simple: an attempt to come near to someone or something that suffers ''for you.'' In the sources for the text and the Buxtehude that someone is Jesus, but I see that much wider – anyone/anything Other suffering for me, us, our form of life, and most directly, nature as the Other suffering.

What a gift it is to explore the minds of composers today and yesterday, to consider how they use (engage, love, knead) words, and, by doing so, be reminded of how close we are, at times, to those who came before us.

Hans’ libretto for Seven Responses:

“I Come Near You”
text arranged by Hans Thomalla after Arnulf of Louvain and Song of Salomon

I come near you
To your side
From which the fountain of blood flows

With quiet countenance
I stand before you
To contemplate your wounds

I come near you
When the hour of my death draws close,
Let me stand by your side

Arise, arise my love
My beautiful
And come
My beautiful
My love

I come near you
To your side

I stand before you
To contemplate your wounds

I come near you
Let me stand by your side

My love
My beautiful
My love