Looking forward and back through the Passion Chorale

The text of our closing hymn today, “O Sacred Head Surrounded,” is ascribed to Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), but some scholars now attribute it to the Medieval poet Arnulf of Louvain (c. 1200-1250) as the collection of poems that contains the text only began to appear in Bernard’s collected works some two hundred years after his death. Any documents that could have shed light on the origin were probably destroyed in the French Revolution when all the monasteries were suppressed.

The melody we sing for this text was originally written by Hans Leo Hassler around 1600 for a secular love song, “Mein G’müt ist mir verwirret.” Johann Crüger adapted the melody in 1656 to fit a German translation of Bernard’s text prepared by Paul Gerhardt. Johann Sebastian Bach arranged the melody and used five stanzas of the hymn in his St Matthew Passion. Bach also used the melody with different words in his Christmas Oratorio. The hymn was first translated into English in 1752 by John Gambold, and the translation in our hymnal was prepared by Henry Baker (1821-1877).

I find it fascinating to consider the evolution of sacred music as found in this hymn. Several hundred years after the text was written, someone combined it with a popular tune to create a piece of music that now is considered an old traditional standard in our sacred repertoire. While it might seem scandalous now to fit sacred words to a tune by Taylor Swift or One Direction (my niece’s two favorite artists), which texts might people still be singing in two hundred years? Will they be using the same melodies we know, or might Adele might be the next Hassler? Hmmm……

Bulletin Notes for the Cathedral of Mary, Our Queen, March 29, 2015