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O Sacred Head, Surrounded

posted Apr 2, 2016, 9:25 AM by Steven Vaughan   [ updated Apr 2, 2016, 9:25 AM ]
In medieval times, monks would spend hours meditating upon the crucifix. They would mentally divide the body of Christ into parts and contemplate each one respectively. So in the beginning of the 13th century, a Belgian abbot writes Salve mundi salutare, a Latin “rhythmic prayer” in seven parts. Each fifty line stanza addressed a different aspect of Christ’s body as he hung on the cross: his feet; knees; hands; pierced side; breast; heart and the last, Salve caput cruentatum, his face. In 1656 it was translated into German, but it was this last section, O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, that became a popular Lutheran hymn. It was first translated into English in 1752 by an Anglican vicar in England as O Head so full of bruises. Then in 1830, an American Presbyterian minister re-translated it as O sacred head, now wounded.

Its hymn tune,
PASSION CHORALE, was originally composed by Hans Leo Hassler in 1600 as a secular love song, Mein G'müt ist mir verwirret. (Before modern copyright protection, melodies were often recycled; it wasn’t unusual to hear a piece of music used for everything from a campaign song to a hymn to a country dance!) Johann Crüger simplified it and adapted it for the 1656 translation. Then in 1727, Johann Sebastian Bach arranged it and used it in his St. Matthew Passion. Two years later he used it again in his cantata, Sehet, wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem (Behold, let us go up to Jerusalem) BWV 159. Then in 1734 he used it yet again, though with a different text, for his Christmas Oratorio.

In 1879, the Hungarian pianist Franz Liszt composed a Via Crucis (Stations of the Cross) for choir, soloists and piano or organ. He included an arrangement of this hymn in the sixth station, Saint Veronica.

Paul Simon’s American Tune is based on this melody, and he gives credit to its origins on his album cover “There Goes Rhymin' Simon”. And did you know the folk group Peter, Paul & Mary combined with the jazz of the Dave Brubeck Trio to perform this tune as Because all men are brothers on the 1971 album "Summit Sessions"?