“Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. The gift of language combined with the gift of song was given to man that he should proclaim the Word of God through music.” Martin Luther
Many of the hymns that we sing in church have a history of their own. This history, like God’s Word is handed down from one generation to the next. While we never change God’s Word we do continue to translate it in the vernacular of our current day. Hymns are often treated the same way. Each generation has its opportunity to supplement and creatively build upon the previous generations contributions. Each generation has the opportunity to creatively express their own context and character. Of course some people would see this as a double-edged sword. New changes are not always readily accepted and some people don’t like “their” music being “messed with.” For instance just ask some of us that grew up with the “The Lutheran Hymnal” or Lutheran Worship how we feel about some of the new song settings and wordings of our Lutheran Service Book. Most of us don’t like change. While not all change is good some of it is profound.
The hymn O Sacred Head, Now Wounded has a long and storied history. It has gone through many generations and had many changes. I wonder if there was a person in Paul Gerhardt or J. S. Bach’s day that told them to leave the old hymns alone. Thanks God they didn’t.
Love, Pastor Mark
70 O Sacred Head, Now Wounded Author—Attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, 1091–1153 Translated into German by Paul Gerhardt, 1607–1676 Translated into English by James W. Alexander, 1804–1859 Music—Hans Leo Hassler, 1564–1612 Harmonized by Johann Sebastian Bach, 1685–1750 Tune Name—“Passion Chorale”
And when they had plaited a crown of thorns, they put it upon His head, and a reed in His right hand; and they bowed the knee before Him, and mocked Him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ And they spit upon Him, and took the reed, and smote Him on the head. Matthew 27:29, 30
The text of this deeply moving hymn is thought to have its roots in twelfth-century monastic life. It has long been attributed to Saint Bernard, abbot of the monastery of Clairvaux, France. Recent research, however, has raised some questions as to whether this was actually the work of Saint Bernard or possibly the writings of a later medieval author, Arnulf von Loewen.
Bernard was born to a noble family at Fontaine-in -Burgundy, France; his father was a knight and his mother a person of radiant goodness. While in his early twenties, Bernard chose the life of a monk at the monastery of Citeaux, France. It is generally agreed that Bernard of Clairvaux became one of the finest and most influential church leaders of that period. He is said to have represented the best of monastic life in his time. The emphasis of his ministry was a life of holiness, simplicity, devotion, prayer, preaching, and ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of mankind. In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther wrote of Bernard that “he was the best monk that ever lived, whom I admire beyond all the rest put together.” It has also generally been believed that Bernard wrote another long poem entitled, Dulcis Jesus Memorial (“Joyful Rhythm on the Name of Jesus”), from which Edward Caswall in the nineteenth century translated portions of the lines for his well-known hymn text, “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee”.
“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” is taken from a lengthy, medieval poem Rhythmica Oratio, in seven parts, with each part addressing various members of Christ’s body as He suffered on the cross: His feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and face. This hymn text is from the seventh portion of the poem and was originally titled “Salve Caput Cruentatum.” The German translation by Paul Gerhardt first appeared in 1656 in the German hymnal, Praxis Pietatis Melica. Here it was titled “O Haupt voll Blut Wunden” (“To the Suffering Face of Jesus Christ”). The hymn text first appeared in English, in 1830, in the hymnal, The Christian Lyre, after James W. Alexander, a Presbyterian minister, had translated Paul Gerhardt’s free German translation.
Paul Gerhardt was born at Grafenheinchen, Saxony, Germany, on March 12, 1607, and eventually was ordained to the German Reformed Church ministry. His life was a tragic one, beginning with much suffering in his early life during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), and later he experienced the early loss of his wife and four children, who died in early childhood. Gerhardt also became the center of much theological and political controversy during the rule of Frederick William I, Elector of Saxony, when Gerhardt refused to assent to the edict of the ruler that forbade free discussion of the differences between the Lutheran and Calvinist Reformed Churches. Yet today, Paul Gerhardt and the Lutheran pastor, Martin Rinkart, (See “Now Thank We All Our God,” (101 Hymn Stories, No. 62) are recognized as the foremost, German hymnists of the seventeenth century. Paul Gerhardt is credited with writing 132 hymn texts during his life. His texts are said to be a reflection of inner spiritual wealth, many of them written “under circumstances which would have made most men cry rather than sing.” Gerhardt’s hymns represent a transition from pure objective faith to a more subjective note in hymnody, containing emotional warmth that often was lacking in the earlier Lutheran hymns. Catherine Winkworth, noted nineteenth-century English hymn translator, has written this concerning Paul Gerhardt: “The religious song of Saxony finds its purest and sweetest expression in his writing.”
James Waddell Alexander was born at Hopewell, Virginia, on March 13, 1804. He received his seminary training at Princeton Theological Seminary and later taught church history there for several years. Following his ordination, Alexander pastored several large Presbyterian churches in New Jersey and New York. He always maintained a keen interest in hymnology, especially in translating the earlier Latin and German texts. A number of these translations were published posthumously, in 1861, in a book titled The Breaking Crucible and Other Translations.
The tune, “Passion Chorale,” was originally a German love song (“My Heart is Distracted by a Gentle Maid”) in Hans Leo Hassler’s collection, Lustgarten Neuer Deutscher Gessang, of 1601. Hassler is generally considered to be one of the finest German composers of the late Renaissance, in both secular and sacred music. The tune first appeared with Gerhardt’s text in the Praxis Pietatis Melica, published by Johann Cruger, in 1644. It has been associated with this text both in German and in English ever since. The Praxis Pietatis Melica is recognized as the most influential and widely used German hymnal of the seventeenth century. Within one hundred years after its initial publication, nearly fifty editions of the hymnal had been printed.
The harmonization of this tune is by the German master-composer, Johann Sabastian Bach, undoubtedly the greatest church musician of history. Bach was not only a superb musician (to study traditional harmony today is still to study the writings of Bach), but also a devout Christian, who insisted that “the aim and final reason of all music should be nothing else but the glory of God and the refreshment of the spirit.” Many of Bach’s compositions began with the inscription, “Jesus, help me!” and at their close, “To God alone be the praise.” It would appear that Bach was especially fond of this melody, since he used the chorale five times throughout his well-known St. Matthew Passion, composed in 1729. The present musical version of this hymn is really a combination of various harmonizations of this melody employed by Bach.
This classic hymn has shown in three tongues—Latin, German and English—and in three confessions—Roman, Lutheran and Reformed—with equal effect, the dying love of our Savior and our boundless indebtedness to Him. Philip Schaff
“Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I myself have founded empires; but upon what do these creations of our genius depend? Upon force. Jesus alone founded His empire upon love; and to this very day millions would gladly die for Him.” Napoleon
“Thorns crowned His blessed head, Blood stained His every tread; Cross laden, on He sped— For Me!
“Pierced through His hands and feet, Three hours o’er Him did beat; Pierce rays of noontide heat— For Me!
“In thought and word and deed, Thy will to do; oh, lead my feet; E’en though they bleed— To Thee!”