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  • Shana Rae

Updated: Feb 13

March 15, 2023

This is the Lenten Season, celebrated in several Christian traditions as the period of reflection, repentance, and alms-giving between Ash Wednesday and Easter. One of my favorite associations with Lent is the St. Matthew Passion and the hymn that is a major component of the melody, O Sacred Head.

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the St. Matthew Passion for the 1727 Good Friday service at St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig, Germany where he was the Thomaskantor, a position in which he taught the boys’ choir and developed music for the church services. Bach had written the St. John Passion in 1724, and these are the only two surviving passion settings, although Bach is believed to have written others.

The St. Matthew Passion is a grand undertaking with two adult choirs, a children’s choir, two orchestras, and soloists. It presents the story of events leading to Christ’s crucifixion including the Last Supper, his betrayal, arrest in Gethsemane, trial, and ends with his crucifixion and burial.[1] In keeping with the Passion’s performance on Good Friday, the story ends tragically with Jesus in the tomb. The happy ending came on Easter Sunday with the resurrection, possibly proclaimed by Bach’s Easter Oratorio which was originally written as a cantata in April 1725.[2]

The text, or libretto, of the St. Matthew Passion is attributed to Picander, the pen name of Christian Friedrich Henrici, who was a poet and the librettist for several of Bach’s works. While the Evangelist character provides the Biblical text in recitative, the arias and chorales are poetic adaptations of the story. Bach made use of old hymn texts and melodies throughout the Passion, and they would have been familiar to the audiences, perhaps bringing their attention back to the story during the very long performance.

One of the most well-known of these chorales is the tune that became the English hymn, O Sacred Head Now Wounded, which Bach used five times in the St. Matthew Passion, each time with different words, keys, and harmonies in order to provide different emphasis.[3] This Passion Chorale, or Herzlich Tut Mich Verlangen, was written by Hans Leo Hassler, a Lutheran composer and organist born in Nuremberg, Germany in 1564.[4] It has been associated with the text “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden" by Paul Gerhardt since they were published together in 1656.

Paul Gerhardt was a famous German Lutheran composer. His text was based on a medieval Latin poem Salve mundi salutare that spoke to various parts of Christ’s body as he hung on the cross, written by Arnulf of Leuven in the 1200s. Gerhardt’s German text has been translated into English numerous times with the most well-known being those of American Presbyterian minister James Waddell Alexander in 1830 and of English poet Robert Bridges in 1899.

I think what is most striking about this hymn is how personal the text is. It is spoken by a follower of Jesus who is distressed by the pain his friend is going through. This is particularly evident in the fourth stanza[5] as translated by Alexander:

What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend,

For this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end?

Oh, make me thine forever! And should I fainting be,

Lord, let me never, never outlive my love for thee!

While many hymns designated for Lent can look upon the events of the crucifixion with distance and as part of a collective grief and repentance, O Sacred Head invites the Christian to connect with Christ personally. Combined with Bach’s harmonization, the text pulls at the heart, at once convicting of sins and lifting in hope.

The hymn is beautiful on its own in Hassler’s musical setting, but it achieves greater heights in Bach’s hands in theme and variations. This is the genius of Bach’s work. He was a brilliant composer in his own right, but he knew how to pull from others’ creativity and to combine existing works in new ways to develop something new. In the St. Matthew Passion, he used the Bible, Picander’s libretto, and many old hymn texts and melodies, including Hassler’s Herzlich Tut Mich Verlangen and Gerhardt’s “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden". Then, he “messed with it” by adjusting keys, moving words around, and finding new harmonies.

Creativity doesn’t have to mean birthing something brand new from your mind alone. Can a work ever truly be a new thought? Everything we have ever learned, experienced, heard, or read combines to give us a perspective, but it came from someone or somewhere else first. The differentiation comes from the ways we combine existing thoughts with our unique perspectives and experiences.

What can you riff on today? What song, story, painting, or poem can you look at through the lens of your feelings and experiences and show to the world in a new way?

[1] Tom Huizenga. A Visitor's Guide To Bach's 'St. Matthew Passion'. Deceptive Cadence, NPR Classical. April 17, 2014. [2] Michiel Carpentier. Which Bach Cantata? Easter, 9 April 2023. [3] Jeremy Nicholas. Bach’s ‘St Matthew Passion’: A Guide To The Sacred Masterpiece. April 7, 2023. [4] PASSION CHORALE (Hassler). April 18, 2023. [5] The Hymnal 1982: According to the use of the Episcopal Church. #168. There were many verses in the original German text translated from Latin, and their inclusion and numbering varies according to the hymnal in use.

One of the ways we all express creativity on an almost daily basis is through cooking. Deciding what to cook is a creative process in itself because you draw from memory and experience to identify the meal that suits your preferences and mood for that day or that week. If you have moved past cooking basics, you also likely adapt recipes to meet your own needs. Even if it’s a small tweak or substitution, you are creatively changing a recipe into something new and different from the way anyone else might prepare that meal.

As my confidence in the kitchen has grown over recent years, I’ve become more adept at noticing the commonalities among types of dishes and preparation methods, allowing me to modify a recipe based on the way it may have been done in a similar recipe. I’m confident that the change will work because I understand how the flavors will meld or know that a certain ingredient will act the same way as another in similar circumstances.

As an example, I’m going to show you how I adapted a baked ziti recipe from Jenn Segal at Once Upon a Chef.[1] You’ll notice if you look at the source page that Jenn herself discusses how she swapped out the traditional ricotta for mozzarella and heavy cream.

While I make many of Jenn’s recipes as written because they are perfect as they are, for this one I replaced the original 1.5 pounds of Italian sausage (spicy or mild) with 1 lb. mild Italian sausage and 1 lb. ground beef. My daughter isn’t a huge fan of sausage, and this is the ratio that I use in my lasagna recipe, so I was confident that the mixture would work. Since I added the less flavorful ground beef, I also seasoned the meat the way that I do for lasagna, with some garlic salt and Italian seasoning. If you want to use real garlic, you could certainly do that by mincing it and adding it to the meat as it browns. You would need to add some kosher salt to taste as well.

I have also made this recipe with pre-made frozen mini Italian meatballs from the grocery store, and it’s wonderful that way. You can usually be very creative with meat in an Italian dish. You could use turkey sausage, or as in Ina Garten’s lamb ragù, ground lamb.[2]

When I first made this dish, I didn’t have the time to make the sauce as written, but I had a jar of marinara. I do like to make sauce from scratch when I have the time because it can be adjusted to taste by so many variables. For instance, in Ina’s Baked Rigatoni with Lamb Ragù and other traditional Italian recipes, fennel is used in the sauce. My family does not appreciate the licorice flavor of fennel, so I leave it out without any consequence.

Cheese types and amounts can also be adapted to taste, so long as cheeses with similar melting characteristics are swapped. I discovered by accident that I preferred to use half of a sliced block of mozzarella plus half shredded mozzarella. On one occasion I had only one cup of shredded mozzarella, but I had part of a block left in the refrigerator. I decided to slice it rather than shredding it, and we all loved the way it melted into the pasta.

I hope you enjoy this recipe, perhaps with your own creative adaptations!

Cheesy Baked Ziti

Yield: 8
Prep time: 30 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes


1 lb. | ziti or similar pasta

1 lb. | mild Italian sausage

1 lb. | ground beef

½ tsp. (or to taste) | garlic salt

1 tsp. (or to taste) | dried Italian seasoning (or combination of basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and marjoram)

1 jar | high-quality marinara sauce, such as Victoria

1 cup | heavy cream

1.5 cup | grated pecorino Romano, divided

⅓ cup | fresh basil, chopped, or sprinkle dried basil to taste

1 cup | shredded whole milk mozzarella

½ package | block whole milk mozzarella (or shred half of the package yourself and slice the other half, leaving out the pre-shredded mozzarella)


Preheat the oven to 425°F with the rack in the middle of the oven.

Place the sausage and ground beef into a large skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat and use a wooden spoon to break it apart as it starts to brown. Sprinkle the meat with the garlic salt and Italian seasoning, mixing it in as you turn and break up the meat.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to boil, liberally salted. Boil the ziti until barely al dente, about seven minutes. Since it will continue to cook in the oven, it needs to be slightly undercooked on the stove. Drain the ziti and add it back to the pot, off of the heat.

Once the meat is browned, drain it and add to the pasta in the pot. Add the marinara to the skillet on low. Add the heavy cream, 1 cup of pecorino Romano, and the basil to the skillet, stirring to combine and melt the cheese. Pour the contents of the skillet into the pasta pot and stir gently to combine.

Prepare a 9x13 baking dish or lasagna dish with cooking spray or butter according to your preference.

Spoon half of the pasta mixture into the dish and sprinkle with half of the shredded mozzarella then space slices of the mozzarella evenly over the top. Add the remaining pasta mixture and repeat with the shredded mozzarella and the sliced mozzarella. Finish with the remaining pecorino Romano.

Bake uncovered for 15 minutes or until the cheese has melted and started to brown. Rest for a few minutes to allow the sauce to thicken and serve with a green salad or vegetable and crusty bread.

[1] Jennifer Segal, “Baked Ziti with Sausage,” Once Upon a Chef, Accessed March 4, 2023. [2] Ina Garten, “Baked Rigatoni with Lamb Ragù,” Modern Comfort Food (New York: Clarkson Potter, 2020), 134.

  • Shana Rae

January 25, 2023

Tonight is Burns Night, a cozy and festive evening devoted to celebrating Scotland’s National Bard, Robert Burns, on what is now the 264th anniversary of his birth. Though he only lived to be 37, he produced over 550 poems and songs and has become an icon of Scotland and its traditional dialect. On this night, many gather at Burns Suppers around the world where the centerpiece of the evening is the piping in of the haggis and the recitation of Robert Burns’ poem, To a Haggis. Burns is credited with popularizing the haggis, which in his time was a cheap and nutritious peasant dish, and is still made from sheep’s offal, oats, suet, and spices.

As demonstrated by his poem extolling the virtues of a common farmer’s dish, a defining characteristic of Burns’ poems is their everyday subject matter. In George Aiton’s introduction to Carlyle’s Essay on Burns, he describes the breadth of Burns’ inspiration, writing, “A mouse, a daisy, a suet pudding, a favorite mare, a calf, the toothache, a stormy night, and even a louse, are made the subjects of poems…”[1] Robert Burns truly found inspiration everywhere he looked.

One of his most famous poems is, in fact, To a Mouse[2], the “wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie” that was disturbed while he plowed a field. Burns devotes six of his eight stanzas to the straightforward discussion of the mouse’s plight that rouses in the reader a perhaps unexpected sympathy for the small fieldmouse. In the last two stanzas, Burns turns philosophical and provides one of the most famous phrases in the English language, co-opted later by Steinbeck, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley (go oft astray), an lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain for promised joy.” Burns finds virtue and a freedom denied to humans in the fact that the mouse can only comprehend the present and the immediate, fearing not for the future and regretting not the past.

Burns’ pedestrian subjects reminded me of a much more modern poet, Mary Oliver, who is one of the most plain-spoken poets I’ve read. Where Burns composed in verse, Oliver’s poems are free-form and at times stream-of-consciousness. Oliver, too, wrote about a mouse, but this time it is The Sea Mouse[3] which is really a type of worm (aphrodita hastata) that is known to wash up on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean after storms. Like Burns, Oliver describes her subject with such sympathy that the reader feels sorrow for the dying worm in her hand, perceiving that what she is describing is perhaps our own inevitable death, as in “With the tip of my finger I stroked it, tenderly, little darling, little dancer, little pilgrim, gray pouch slowly filling with death.”

Each poet drew inspiration from the natural world and commonplace things around them. Their creativity lay in making the connection to the human condition that rouses feeling in the reader, whether forging kinship as Oliver did, or showing sharp contrast between human and mouse as did Burns. That emotional response from the reader connects him or her to the poem and to the author.

When we create, it is not enough to describe. Our intended audience may read a line, glance at a painting, appreciate a melody, but only briefly, if we do not give them a “so what”. How does our work connect to their lives and make them stop and think about what they have just read, seen, or heard? These connections do not need to be as profound as the topic of death. It could be the call to live more simply or to find small joys in each day. It could be care for children or the love of family. For a work to show true creativity and make a difference in the world, it needs to connect the creative subject to the observer in a way that will leave an impression.

[1] Thomas Carlyle, Burns, ed. George B. Aiton (Chicago: Scott, Foresman & Co, 1896), 26. [2] Robert Burns, The Poetical Works of Robert Burns (London: Frederick Warne & Co, 1890), 28. [3] Mary Oliver, Devotions (New York: Penguin Books, 2020) 275.

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