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. 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.
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. 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. 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 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?
 Tom Huizenga. A Visitor's Guide To Bach's 'St. Matthew Passion'. Deceptive Cadence, NPR Classical. April 17, 2014. https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2014/04/17/298773771/a-visitors-guide-to-bachs-st-matthew-passion  Michiel Carpentier. Which Bach Cantata? Easter, 9 April 2023. https://whichbachcantata.be/cantata-days/easter.html  Jeremy Nicholas. Bach’s ‘St Matthew Passion’: A Guide To The Sacred Masterpiece. April 7, 2023. https://www.udiscovermusic.com/classical-features/bach-st-matthew-passion/  PASSION CHORALE (Hassler). Hymnary.org. April 18, 2023. https://hymnary.org/tune/passion_chorale_hassler  The Hymnal 1982: According to the use of the Episcopal Church. #168. https://hymnary.org/hymn/EH1982/168. There were many verses in the original German text translated from Latin, and their inclusion and numbering varies according to the hymnal in use.