The older I get the more willing I am to admit my own ignorance of, well, just about everything. Life is constantly humbling, I’ve discovered. So I proceed with humble apologies to any music scholars who read this. And many thanks to Kevin Wines, music faculty at Denison University and Director of Music/Liturgy at Trinity Episcopal Church on Capitol Square, for sparking my recent journey into Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. A great piece of sacred music which I admit to being ignorant of until this Holy Week.

This year, since we were all worshipping from home due to COVID-19, I tuned in to the recordings of Lenten Hymns that Kevin and the Trinity Choir recorded in 2013. On Palm Sunday, we listened to the choir singing Hymn 168 from The Hymnal of The Episcopal Church (1984), O sacred head, sore wounded, the “Passion Chorale.”

 

After the service I listened to the hymn and sang along again. There is something about that tune that impresses on our hearts the immense gravity and of this pandemic and the sacred longing we experience during our time apart from each other, as well as the longing to be with our families and friends, to hold them close again.

There was another thing about that tune. A memory of a song I knew and couldn’t place. I am as tenacious as a terrier when I can’t figure something out. (I once spent years on and off in search of why there isn’t, in common use, a word to refer to a singular, non-gender-specific member of the bovine species. There just isn’t, trust me. The best I could come up with was “ox.” But really? Everyone just calls it a “cow.” This still drives me crazy.) So I was off to the research races going down this rabbit hole and that—was it a Spanish cancione? Nope. I ruled that out.

So I looked up the hymn’s story and found that the tune “Herzlich tut mich verlangen” (My heart is filled with longing) by Renaissance composer Hans Leo Hassler, was published with the Lutheran hymnist Paul Gerhardt’s text “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” (Oh head, full of blood and wounds) in 1656. The hymn was first translated into English in 1752 by John Gambold, an Anglican vicar in Oxfordshire. His translation begins, “O Head so full of bruises.” These titles are a little too vivid for modern sensibilities! In 1830 a new translation of the hymn was made by an American Presbyterian minister, James Waddel Alexander. Alexander’s translation, beginning “O sacred head, now wounded,” is now one of the most widely used in 19th and 20th century hymnals. I guess the softer version won out.

This was all very interesting, but this information got me only a little closer to the answer I was looking for. Enter Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Be still my heart.

By this time I was corresponding with my dear, eccentric friend Bill, who told me wryly: “After its 1729 premiere Bach got an irate response from his bosses at Leipzig Town Council—The Passion is too long, too operatic, not what we want, don’t do it again! And then they cut his salary, for making the greatest work of Western sacred music! Job issues never die!” When he shared with me that the Erbarme dich section of the Passion was “like having your heart ripped out and served on the most deluxe of silver platters,” he was speaking my language.

Somewhere along the line I figured out that the song I was looking for was Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” Which is laden with its own longing and meaning.

I also had the St. Matthew Passion occupying a new space in my heart, which had expanded to let it in. I see them as apt anthems for our times.

A tune—set to sacred text or modern vernacular, can hold on its bones the depths of our souls and in return stir our bones to reverie.

And the value of a journey on which you find new art and personal meaning—well, you can figure that one out yourself.

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