At Wigmore Hall, I hear the classical version of “Heads, shoulders, knees and toes”

Membra Jesu Nostri is set in seven sections, each corresponding to a party of the body. Plus: Rigoletto at the London Coliseum.

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How many pieces of music do you know that are devoted solely to feet? Sadly, given the human foot’s vital role in our everyday lives, the Western classical canon isn’t exactly bursting with odes to insteps and ankles. The playground song “Heads, shoulders, knees and toes” comes closest, though its sing-song rhythms have so far excluded it from the world’s concert halls.

Yet in 1680 the Danish-German composer Dieterich Buxtehude produced a set of cantatas, known as Membra Jesu Nostri, which has much in common with the ­well-known children’s ditty. Each of its seven parts is devoted to observation and celebration of a specified part of the body, from “Ad pedes” (“to the feet”) through to “Ad faciem”, or “to the face”. The body in question is Christ’s, and the Latin text for each section is extracted from a medieval hymn, with the words chosen for their exploration of a particular part of the body hanging on the cross.

As performed on 20 February by members of the renowned early music ensemble the Sixteen, the suite was absorbing and lyrical. Under the direction of Harry Christophers, the dissonances between individual vocal and instrumental lines were brought out skilfully and the mood varied according to the music, without the presentation ever feeling indulgent or over the top.

It is unclear what Buxtehude saw as the purpose of the work, each of whose carefully crafted odes contains both an instrumental sonata and an intricate choral work. He worked for decades as the organist at the Marienkirche in the northern German city of Lübeck and spent most of his time playing for church services, rather than composing or staging choral works. The Membra Jesu Nostri, it has been speculated, was perhaps rather composed for private religious gatherings or prayer meetings. Its solemn, melancholy strains would assist in focusing prayer on one particular aspect of Christ’s crucified body in turn.

Buxtehude played a part in the newly emerging Protestant sacred music, experimenting with the intersection between melody and liturgy and laying the groundwork for the coming, 25 years later, of perhaps the greatest Lutheran composer of all: Johann Sebastian Bach. In the poignant soprano lines of the climactic sixth cantata, “Ad cor” (“to the heart”), it is possible to hear a nascent quality that came to fruition in Bach’s great Easter compositions of the 1720s, the St Matthew and St John passions.

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In the production notes for his 1982 production of Rigoletto for English National Opera, Jonathan Miller described its setting as “gangland limbo”, a version of Little Italy in 1950s New York City, where the 16th-century Mantuan nobleman of Verdi’s original becomes the “Duke”, a Mafia boss with a chorus of hoodlums to assist him in his evil deeds. In a 1989 review of the opera’s televised broadcast, the New York Times described the decision to update the setting as “provocative”. Thirty-five years on, it may no longer have the power to shock audiences but it’s still splendid entertainment.

The moral dilemmas and class hierarchies of the story are made more comprehensible by the 20th-century setting, too. Rigoletto is no longer a court jester but the barman at the Duke’s hotel, where the boss’s favoured lieutenants enjoy baiting him and ­making his job harder by deliberately dropping peanuts everywhere. Is it any wonder he becomes consumed by a desire for revenge when they mistreat his daughter?

In this 13th revival (25-28 February), the original sets from Miller’s production were refreshed to give them a mid-century-modern, almost Hopper-esque feel. Slicked-back hair and sharp suits were everywhere, and the women’s tight 1950s evening gowns fit the period setting perfectly when one of them emerged, disarranged and distressed, from an offstage encounter with the Duke.

Joshua Guerrero gave a vocally secure performance as the Duke, including a raucous version of “La donna è mobile”, although he is somewhat lacking in the lethal blend of charisma and malice that Verdi’s score demands from the character. Nicholas Pallesen as Rigoletto acted rather better than he sang, but his duets with Sydney Mancasola’s Gilda were evocative and moving. The great thrill of this revival, though, came from Nicholas Folwell as Monterone. Resplendent in a Godfather-inspired coat with fur collar, Folwell packed into his short lines all the indignation and fury of an ageing father whose daughter has been seduced and discarded by the Duke. 

Caroline Crampton is a writer and podcaster. She was formerly an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again