Friday, March 18, 2011

The Music of Lent: O Sacred Head Now Wounded

The season of Lent always filled me with wonder as a child – even more so than Christmas.  I was raised in the Catholic Church and well remember going to mass on Ash Wednesday and being marked with ashes of burned palm leaves, left from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.  I remember being coached (usually unsuccessfully) to give up something for Lent.  I remember the statues of Joseph and Mary, as well as the large crucifix above the altar, being draped in purple (such as in the picture below, taken in a church in Germany).

But mainly, I remember Holy Week – the week beginning with Palm Sunday and culminating on Easter Sunday. I remember the pomp of Palm Sunday, as we each received a palm branch and commemorated the Savior’s triumphal ride through Jerusalem by marching in processional out of and around the church.  We would then take our palms home, where our mother taught us how to split and weave the branches (as pictured below), which would then be used to adorn our crucifix at home or placed in a vase. 

Then, on Palm Sunday evening, there would always be a special Easter movie.  In those days, it was likely The Robe or King of Kings, or perhaps The Song of Bernadette.  That week, as well as throughout Lent, we would participate in Stations of the Cross, commemorating the events of Good Friday.  Then came Holy Thursday, commemorating the Last Supper, which of course was followed by Good Friday, the most solemn day in the Church’s liturgical calendar.  The statues and crucifix were now draped in black, and the mass was very somber.  Thereafter followed Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, complete with triumphant music, flowers and – of course – the Easter Bunny.

In subsequent years, as I moved through my later high school and college years, I enjoyed commemorating Lent in the Methodist Church as well as the Episcopal Church, which – among other things – enriched my appreciation of Lenten and Eastertide liturgical music.

I have missed the commemoration of Lent since joining the LDS Church.  There are things I could and may yet write concerning this.  For now, I have decided to prepare a series of posts featuring the music of Lent, which I plan to publish every Friday leading up to Easter. I begin with a song that Latter-day Saints know as “O Savior, Thou Who Wearest a Crown,” (Hymn No. 197), but which the rest of the Christian world knows as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” – a hymn which has as rich a history in the Christian tradition as any, going back nearly a thousand years.

Medieval Beginnings

"O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" is a Christian Passion hymn based on a long Medieval Latin poem, Salve mundi salutare, with the seven parts of the poem each identifying a different part of the body of Christ on the Cross (feet, knees, hands, sides, breast, heart and head), intended to be sung each day of Holy Week. The last part of the poem, from which the hymn is taken, is addressed to Christ's head, and begins "Salve caput cruentatum."

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.  Prevailing thought, however, attributes the text to Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), who was a spiritual leader held in the highest esteem by many, including Martin Luther.  He may be familiar to some LDS as the author of the text of the hymn, “Jesus the Very Thought of Thee.”

Christ Embracing Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
Francisco Ribalta (Spanish, circa 1626)

As mentioned, Bernard wrote this poem as a prayer addressed to Christ on the cross, using the poetic device of addressing each part to a different part of Christ’s body. So the first part of the poem was addressed to Christ’s feet, the next to his knees, then to the hands, to the side, to the breast, to the heart, and finally to the face.

German Hymn

The last part of Clairvaux’s poem, addressed to the face of Christ, was translated into German by the prolific Lutheran hymnist Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676). The German hymn begins, "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden". 

The music for the German and English versions of the hymn is by Hans Leo Hassler, written around 1600 for a secular love song, "Mein G'müt ist mir verwirret", which first appeared in print in 1601. The tune was appropriated and rhythmically simplified for Gerhardt's German hymn in 1656 by Johann Crüger. Johann Sebastian Bach then arranged the melody and used five stanzas of the hymn in his Saint Matthew Passion, featured in the video clip below.  As you listen, I suggest reading the literal English translation of Gerhardt’s German text, set out below the video.

O Head full of blood and wounds,
full of pain and full of derision,
O Head, in mockery bound
with a crown of thorns,
O Head,once beautifully adorned
with the most honour and adornment,
but now most dishonoured:
let me greet you!

You noble countenance,
before which once shrinks and cowers
the great might of the world,
how you are spat upon!
How you are turned pallid!
Who has treated those eyes
to which no light is comparable
so shamefully?

The colour of your cheeks,
the splendour of your red lips
has vanished completely;
the might of pale death
has taken all away,
has snatched up all,
and you have come to this
through your love's strength.

Now what you, Lord ,endure, 
Is all my burden;
I have myself deserved
what you have borne.
See , I stand here a poor man
who has deserved your wrath;
grant to me, O my comforter,
a glimpse of your grace.

Recognise me, my guardian,
my shepherd, take me with you!
By you, the source of all goodness,
has so much good be done for me.
Your mouth has refreshed me
with milk and sweet food;
your spirit has bestowed on me
so many heavenly pleasures.

I shall stand here with you,
do not then scorn me!
I do not want to leave you
when your heart is breaking;
when your set turns pale
in the last throes of death
then I want to grasp you think
in my arm and bosom unite.

It serves to give me joy
and does my heart good
when in your sufferings,
my saviour, I can find myself.
Ah, if only I could, O my life,
here at your cross
give my life away from me,
what good fortune that would be for me!

I thank you from my heart,
O Jesus, dearest friend,
for the sorrows of your death,
where what you intended was so good.
Ah grant that I may keep myself
with you and your faithfulness
and if I grow cold,
may my end be with you!

When I must once and for all depart,
then do not depart from me;
when I must suffer death,
then stand by me;
when my heart will be
most fearful,
then snatch me from the terrors
by the virtue of your own fear and pain!

Appear to me as my shield,
as comfort in my death,
and grant that I may see your image
in your agony on the cross!
Then I shall look towards you,
then full of faith I shall
press you closely to my heart.
To die in this way is to die well.

English Translation

The hymn was first translated into English in 1752 by John Gambold, an Anglican vicar in Oxfordshire; In 1830, however, a new translation of the hymn was made by an American Presbyterian minister, James Waddel Alexander, and his translation, beginning "O sacred head, now wounded," became one of the most widely used in 19th and 20th century hymnals.  These lyrics are reflected in the following performance by modern Christian artist Fernando Ortega:

In 1899, English poet Robert Bridges wrote a new translation, and his verses are featured in the following performance by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.  As you listen, I invite you to reflect on some Lenten devotions from this past Sunday’s service at the First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City, set out below the video clip.

God of love and mercy,
We gather today from different places –
Both of location and life experience.
Some of us arrive content, others muddled and fractured,
Still others somewhere in between.
In trust we pray:
Hold us in your grace.

God of love and mercy,
At the beginning of this Lenten season,
We pray for a willingness to be held in all that we are.
We come daring to believe that in your embrace,
Joy and hope arise anew.
In thanksgiving we pray:
Hold us in your grace.

Grateful for forgiveness, O God,
And amazed by your warmth of heart,
We would be opened,
Giving words to difficult feelings,
Seeking healing for old, yet tender wounds.
Hold us – in your love may we rest and be renewed.

*For the times we have deceived ourselves and others,
With divided thoughts and purposes,
Creating emptiness of soul, and unhappy relationships:
Hold us – in your love may we rest and be renewed.

*And for the times we remain silent,
Fearful of inner truths,
Resistant to real change and truthful, intimate exchange:
Hold us – in your love may we rest and be renewed.

(*These verses seemed particularly appropriate to me as I make my way out of the closet.)

I have been greatly enriched by learning more about the history and meaning of this incredibly beautiful hymn, particularly as I contemplate it’s almost millennium-old history.  I hope that this post, and those which shall follow, will enrich your own Lenten season in a way that is meaningful to you.

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