“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”

Hymn Study
by Dean McIntyre

TITLE: "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded"
AUTHOR: attr. To Arnulf of Louvain (1200-1251)
TUNE: PASSION CHORALE
COMPOSER: Hans Leo Hassler, 1601; harm. by J. S. Bach, 1729
SOURCES: United Methodist Hymnal, no. 286
SCRIPTURE: Matthew 27:27-31; Mark 15:16-20; John 19:1-5
TOPICS: Christ's Passion; crucifixion; scourging; Holy Week; Good Friday

 

Background
The well-known PASSION CHORALE setting, familiar from its marriage to a number of texts in many hymnals, including "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded," did not begin as a sacred tune. It dates from a medieval melody adapted in 1601 by Hans Leo Hassler for a love song titled "Confused Are All My Feelings, a Tender Maid's the Cause." PASSION CHORALE was first used as the setting for the text "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" by Johann Crüger (1598-1662) in 1656. The harmonization used for "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" is adapted from J. S. Bach's setting in St. Matthew Passion, 1729.

Hymnal editor Carlton Young describes this practice of "setting a new sacred text to a popular secular melody for the purpose of reaching a wider audience" as the historical musical practice known as contrafactum. Other sources define the technique as simply "the substitution of one text for another without substantial change to the music." For a modern example of contrafactum, see "Cast Out, O Christ," Worship & Song no. 3072.

Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612) studied with the great Italian Renaissance composer and organist Andrea Gabrieli (1532?-1585) and became friends with Gabrieli's nephew, Giovanni. After returning to Germany, Hassler became a successful and respected composer, organist, organ designer and consultant to organ builders. In 1602 Hassler became the Kapellmeister (director of town music) in Nuremburg, and in 1606 the organist and Kapellmeister to the Elector Christian II of Saxony. Upon his death from tuberculosis in 1612, he was succeeded by Michael Praetorius and Heinrich Schütz. The tune PASSION CHORALE has been used in modern times by Paul Simon for the melody of his "American Tune" and by Peter, Paul & Mary and the Dave Brubeck Trio in their 1960 performance of "Because All Men Are Brothers" on the album Summit Sessions.

 

Music
The music is in AABC structure, the first two phrases in A-minor, the last two moving to a final cadence in C-major. The German chorale form maintains the strong polarity between soprano and bass voices. The frequent harmonic changes on almost every beat make it difficult to play this music on guitars without heavy simplification of the harmony:

|| C| F C | G C | A E7 | Am  | F  C | G  C  |  Am  E7  |  Am  |

    | G   |  F C  | A  Dm   | A |  D  G  |  D G  |  F  G7   |  C  |  |

 

Words
The original Medieval Latin poem is a meditation with stanzas addressing the various parts of Christ's body hanging on the cross. It has been attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), but is now attributed to Arnulf of Louvain (1200-1251). The hymn text is taken from the last section of the original poem, addressed to Christ's head. It was translated into German by Lutheran hymnist Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676) and into English in 1752 by John Gambold (1711-1771), beginning "O Head so full of bruises." Our hymnal's version was made in 1830 by American Presbyterian minister, James Alexander (1804-1859).

Each stanza adds to the experience of Holy Week and Christ's Passion. Stanza one gives us the picture of Christ's head, hanging with the weight of our grief and shame, pierced and crowned with thorns, scorned and abused. Stanza two speaks of Christ taking upon himself the sins and transgressions, hence the pain, rightly deserved by sinners. Stanza three asks how we are to respond, to give thanks for our salvation. The graphic depiction of Christ dying on the cross is a theme not uncommon to our hymnody, as in "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" by Isaac Watts and the Spiritual "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord."

 

Sources

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