It has been years since I spent Good Friday in a church, but in my youth the Easter long weekend was a marathon of church services and masses. As a teenager I sang in the church choir, and attended services on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Having a passion for both music and history, I have long been fascinated by hymns. Catholic hymns can often trace their history back centuries – traditional melodies were typically paired with religious poetry to create beautiful celebrations of faith. The popular Christmas carol “What Child is This?” for example is a reworking of a medieval melody with the addition of new Christmas-themed lyrics. The complex histories behind popular hymns can be absolutely fascinating, and often span both centuries and countries, as different elements were brought together over generations to create the hymns that many of us grew up with.
One of my favourite Lenten hymns is “Oh Sacred Head, Surrounded”, which has the most haunting melody, and which perfectly captures the traditional spirit of Good Friday. You can get a sense of the history infused in religions hymns when you look at the complex background of this beautiful song:
O Sacred Head, Surrounded is a translation by Sir Henry W. Baker (1821-1877) of the final portion of the medieval Latin poem, Salve Mundi Salutare. This lengthy medieval poem is a meditation on the sufferings of Christ’s body at the crucifixion. Historically it has been attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), but recent research suggests it is more likely the work of the Cistercian Abbot, Arnulf of Leuven (c.1200-1250). An early translation into German was done by the Lutheran hymnist, Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676). That version was then translated into english by Presbyterian minister and theologian, James W. Alexander (1804-1859). His, O Sacred Head, Now Wounded is the source of the different versions of the hymn by that same name. It is believed that Baker’s hymn is instead a translation from the original latin. The text included in the Liturgy of the Hours contains an additional verse written by Melvin Farrell, S.S., first published in 1961. It is set to the Passion Chorale by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612) which was originally published as the tune for a secular love song in 1601, and then eventually adapted to Gerhardt’s hymn in 1656. Other famous composers who have used the same melody include: Johann Sebastian Bach (St Matthew’s Passion), Franz Liszt (Way of the Cross), and Paul Simon (American Tune). In the Liturgy of the Hours, O Sacred Head, Surrounded is used on Palm Sunday and during Holy Week.
O Sacred Head surrounded
By crown of piercing thorn!
O bleeding Head so wounded,
Reviled and put to scorn!
Death’s pallid hue comes o’er Thee,
The glow of life decays,
Yet angel hosts adore Thee,
And tremble as they gaze.
All that history in one hymn! It’s enough to make a history nerd weak at the knees! Just imagine being seated in one of those massive European cathedrals, filled with stained glass, glorious paintings and evocative statues, lit only by candlelight, as a choir sings this haunting melody. It would send shivers down your spine! Though I am no longer a practising Catholic, as a lover of music and a student of history I can’t help but be drawn into these beautiful works of music, which capture so evocatively the time periods that produced them.
Whatever Easter means to you, here’s hoping you all have an absolutely wonderful one, filled with things that bring you joy!