History of Hymns: “O sacred Head, now wounded”

by Henry Waters

"O sacred Head, now wounded"
Bernard of Clairvaux
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 286

Paul Gerhardt

O sacred head! now wounded,
With grief and shame weighed down;
Now scornfully surrounded
With thorns, thy only crown;
O sacred Head! what glory,
What bliss till now was thine!
I read the wondrous story!
I joy to call thee mine!


The true origins of “O sacred head, now wounded” are still debated. Some sources suggest the 11th century, while others attribute the text to Arnulf of Louvain (1200-1251) in the 13th century. Still others believe that the source is later still because the poem first appeared in an anonymous Latin manuscript from the 14th century. 

Prevailing thought attributes the text to Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), who was a spiritual leader held in the highest esteem by many, including Martin Luther. 

The Latin text consisted of seven parts, identifying a different part of the body (feet, knees, hands, sides, breast, heart and head), intended to be sung each day of Holy Week. 

From here Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676) used the final stanza of the Latin, “Christ’s head with sharp thorns crowned,” as a basis for his German translation, “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden,” (O head with blood and wounds) which was first published in its entirety in Johann Crüger’s Praxis Pietatis Melica (1656). 

Gerhardt struggled through numerous unfortunate events including the death of his wife and children as well as his removal from the Lutheran church, though he was to return. 

The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), which tested people’s belief in God and Christianity, had a profound impact on hymn writing, including Gerhardt’s. After the war, the reliance on an omnipotent God for comfort and consolation was written in the hymns of this period producing expressions of Christian devotion and individual self-consciousness, as noted by hymnologist William J. Reynolds. 

Around 200 years later, James Waddell Alexander (1804-1859) translated Gerhardt’s German text into English. This text, originally in eight stanzas, was first published in Joshua Leavitt’s The Christian Lyre (1830). 

Alexander received his education from the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, and theological education from the seminary at Princeton. Alexander was then ordained in the Presbyterian Church and served at churches in New Jersey and New York. It is Alexander’s translation that is widely used today in most North American hymnals. 

PASSION CHORALE, as this hymn tune is often called, was first found in Hans Leo Hassler’s (1564-1612) Lustgarten neuer teutscher Gesäng, Balletti, Galliarden und Intraden (1601). Originally this melody was set to a secular love song entitled “Mein gemüth ist mir verwirret” (My heart is distracted by a gentle maid). Hymnologist Linda Jo McKim notes that it first appeared with the Gerhardt text in Praxis Pietatis Melica (1656) and has been associated with the text ever since. 

During the early 18th century, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) harmonized this hymn and used the tune in many of his works. Bach’s harmonization is the one that is most used in the North American hymnals. The setting used in The UM Hymnal was adapted from one of Bach’s settings of this tune found in his monumental Passion According to St. Matthew

“O Sacred Head” is a hymn for Holy Week, a time of reflection on what Christ has done for us. Specifically, this hymn takes place at the time of the crucifixion on Good Friday. 

Due to its descriptive and powerful text, Beverly Howard, editor of The Hymn, suggests that each player should keep the Baroque tradition in mind, adding ornamentation. She also suggests reviving the practice of “alternatim” in which each stanza is alternated with a choral prelude, which allows the text and affect to “sink in.” 
 

Mr. Waters is a sacred music student of Dr. Michael Hawn’s at Perkins School of Theology.

Categories: History of Hymns, History of Hymns/Hymn Studies Related to Lent and Easter