Poetry Friday: Good Friday

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!

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38 Comments

  • Reply dmayr

    I read the words, “O Sacred Head, Surrounded” and immediately started singing. Those childhood experiences stay with us for a long, long, time! Have a great weekend!

    April 14, 2017 at 3:05 am
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      Isn’t it funny how we can remember the words to a song we haven’t heard or maybe even thought about it years? The mind is a wonderfully strange thing!

      April 16, 2017 at 1:17 am
  • Reply jama

    Lovely post, Jane. Beautiful hymn and I enjoyed all the history behind it. I feel the same way about sacred music — it can send shivers down your spine to sit in a big cathedral and hear the pipe organ and choir. It’s such a humbling, transformative experience. My family was once invited to sit in the Westminster Abbey choir for afternoon service and I will never forget it! The boy sopranos brought tears to our eyes.

    I have happy memories of playing the piano for our local church choir — Easter weekend was a big one, with a cantata on Good Friday as well as Easter Sunday.

    April 14, 2017 at 3:54 pm
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      It’s incredible to think of all the people who have sat in those seats and listened to that same music, generation after generation, across hundreds of years! Absolutely humbling and inspiring, at the same time – you’re reminded how small you are, but at the same time how connected you are with so many other small beings! 🙂

      April 16, 2017 at 1:19 am
  • Reply lindabaie

    One childhood memory is singing in the church choir. Thank you for sharing the long history of this particular hymn, Jane. I loved listening.

    April 14, 2017 at 4:17 pm
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      I love the way that music can bring back so many memories!

      April 16, 2017 at 1:20 am
  • Reply haitiruth

    You’re right, we are on the same wavelength today! The words and music for this are both gorgeous. Happy Easter to you, too! Ruth, thereisnosuchthingasagodforsakentown.blogspot.com

    April 14, 2017 at 5:07 pm
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      Great minds think alike! 🙂

      April 16, 2017 at 1:20 am
  • Reply cvarsalona

    Jane, I am definitely in the Good Friday mood: fasting, church service at 3, and a flounder dinner. Thank you for providing me with background knowledge about a song that I do love. I am wondering if this song will be sung today. Hundreds of worshippers will be coming the Cathedral service this afternoon. This line, “O bleeding Head so wounded, Reviled and put to scorn!” is a vivid memory of childhood tales by the nuns and priests.

    April 14, 2017 at 5:18 pm
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      There’s something wonderful about being together with so many people, all gathered in a shared celebration. That dinner sounds delicious!

      April 16, 2017 at 1:22 am
  • Reply dorireads

    This is such a beautiful hymn. I love that you are drawn to the history of the hymn itself. Happy Easter to you.

    April 14, 2017 at 9:53 pm
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      And a very happy Easter to you! I’m always drawn to history – I was one of those curious children who was never satisfied with knowing “what”, I always had to know “why”! 🙂

      April 16, 2017 at 1:23 am
  • Reply Michelle Heidenrich Barnes

    I didn’t recognize the hymn by name, but as soon as I heard the first musical phrase… BAM!… I’m back in church 40 years ago, listening to those haunting refrains. Thanks for bringing back that memory for me, Jane.

    April 14, 2017 at 10:45 pm
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      I had the same feeling – it’s incredible how music can immediately transport you to another place and time, even decades ago!

      April 16, 2017 at 1:24 am
  • Reply Linda Mitchell

    Happy Easter! I grew up in the Catholic church as well. When I walked away it was tough because I had come to love the rituals rooted in such history and story so much. What an incredible song. Tonight, I will go to Easter vigil. It takes me back to the centuries of connection. It’s a beautiful thing for poets and history nerds.

    April 14, 2017 at 11:55 pm
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      I felt exactly the same way. There’s something incredibly comforting about those traditions and rituals, the feeling of belonging to something bigger than yourself, something that connects you to centuries of other people. Walking away from that can absolute leave you feeling a bit adrift. I do like to listen to the old hymns at high feasts and holidays, just for old times’ sake!

      April 16, 2017 at 1:30 am
  • Reply katswhiskers

    My soul wells with tears and gratitude when hearing this – and other – hymns. So beautiful. So raw.

    April 14, 2017 at 11:58 pm
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      My thoughts exactly. So deeply moving.

      April 18, 2017 at 1:14 am
  • Reply Ramona

    It’s amazing to read the emotional responses to this hymn. Lots of connections for other people, although it’s not one I know. I enjoyed reading about its history and listening to the audio you shared.

    April 15, 2017 at 2:53 am
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      There’s something about music that connects so deeply with the soul, and which can just stir so powerfully.

      April 18, 2017 at 1:16 am
  • Reply Brenda Davis Harsham

    Sweet memories. Those European cathedrals are sadly empty during services. I tried to attend Evensong in Edinburgh, but I couldn’t understand a word the minister was saying. I’ve always thought it was a lovely name for a service.

    April 15, 2017 at 3:17 am
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      Oh, I love the sound of Evensong, or Lauds, or Matins – I’ve never actually been to any of these services, but they sound so lyrical, with such history. Even if I couldn’t understand a word of it. 🙂

      April 18, 2017 at 1:18 am
  • Reply Alice Nine

    Beautiful hymn, Jane, and I love it’s final lines — “And from Thy cross embrace me, With arms outstretched to save.”

    April 15, 2017 at 5:10 am
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      Yes, I love that about it, too. Despite its sadness, its a very reassuring hymn, and I can see generations of listeners finding comforting in those words.

      April 18, 2017 at 1:20 am
  • Reply maryleehahn

    My childhood Easters, too, were filled with church services. I played in the bell choir. ‘Nuf said.

    One of my favorite memories of Easter services is when the adults let the teens plan the sunrise service. We filled the sanctuary with helium balloons, and at the end, gathered all the attendees on the front walk and sang “Morning Has Broken” while I played the chords on my guitar!

    April 15, 2017 at 12:13 pm
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      How lovely! I went to quite a traditional church, and I cannot imagine being allowed to have helium balloons or guitars – I think the priest would’ve fainted. 😉 I do love the thought of a sunrise service, it must’ve been beautiful to see morning break with so many fellow celebrants.

      April 18, 2017 at 1:21 am
  • Reply mbhmaine

    I no longer attend church, and one of the things I miss most is the music. Luckily I have a daughter who sings in a college choir, so I still get to hear amazing choral music. Thanks for another opportunity to do so, one enhanced by a fascinating history lesson!

    April 15, 2017 at 12:16 pm
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      I didn’t realize how much I missed the music until I attended a Christmas concert a few years ago that was filled with traditional hymns – it reminded me why I loved singing in the choir for all those years! I was always drawn to the complex, beautiful music, with its harmonies and history.

      April 18, 2017 at 1:24 am
  • Reply Kay McGriff (@kaymcgriff)

    The history of hymns is fascinating! I still enjoy singing the old hymns (and the newer songs as well).

    April 15, 2017 at 2:47 pm
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      Me too! 🙂

      April 18, 2017 at 1:25 am
  • Reply readingtothecore

    Thank you for sharing the history of this haunting hymn. I was raised in the Episcopal church, so I don’t have memories of this hymn, but can still sing the first verse of “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”

    April 16, 2017 at 3:11 pm
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      Isn’t it funny the way music just burrows into our souls? Even years later, we can still remember the words to songs we haven’t heard in years! Whatever our background, there are songs that find their way into our memories. 🙂

      April 18, 2017 at 1:26 am
  • Reply Keri Collins Lewis

    I agree, the history found in hymns is fascinating! This is a touching hymn, and I’m glad I now know more about it!

    April 16, 2017 at 10:51 pm
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      I’m glad I was able to share it! History is never boring – history teachers and textbooks might be boring, but never history! 🙂

      April 18, 2017 at 1:28 am
  • Reply macrush53

    Aren’t hymns interesting? This one is new to me. Thanks for sharing.

    April 16, 2017 at 11:30 pm
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      I agree! There’s so much history behind every part of our lives, and I love to discover it. 🙂

      April 18, 2017 at 1:27 am
  • Reply Heidi Mordhorst

    I feel the same about the Lutheran hymns I grew up with. This morning I just had to allow a chorus of “Christ the Lord is risen today; a-a-a-a-le-e-lu-u-ia!” That concept doesn’t work for me any more, but the feeling of that sunrise service stays with me. I really loved learning about this tune and its history. I’m grateful that I still get to sing and enjoy a wide range of music at my UU congregation.

    April 17, 2017 at 2:03 am
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      There’s just something so powerful about hearing a familiar refrain that takes you immediately back to childhood memories. I’m glad you’ve found a way to still fill your life with music and song – I had to look up “UU”, and from what I’ve read at least, it sounds like a wonderfully welcoming, inclusive and open-minded spiritual group!

      April 18, 2017 at 1:34 am

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