Quick - think of a Lenten hymn that you can lead a small musically unskilled group in singing without accompaniment or rehearsal! Oh, and a bit of variety would be nice. This is the challenge the community I pray with faces every morning: what are we going to sing? Last year I had had surgery at the start of Lent and was on 6 weeks of enforced voice rest as a result. Now we needed to think of a hymn that not only met all of the above criteria, but that could be sung without me leading it to boot! And so for the forty weekdays of Lent, we sang "Lord, who throughout these forty days", alternating between verses 1 and 2 and verses 3 and 4 in a desperate grasp for variety. My confessor had joked that he couldn't think of a worse Lenten penance for me than to give up singing, but as the season wore on it was clear that my penance was being shared out with my community!
Over the last year, several strong voices have take up residence at the Augustinian priory and my voice has returned with all its vigor so we are far less constrained in our selections (though those of us around for last Lent still twitch at the suggestion of "Lord, who throughout..."). Last Thursday the hebdomidarian flipped through the hymns and offered us O Sacred Head, So Wounded from the Passion Chorale featured in the fifth Evangelist's St. Matthew's Passion. Our voices were not quite up to the standard of the first performance of this piece, on Good Friday in 1797 in Leipzig's Thomaskirche, where Luther preached and Bach composed. Instead they evoked a stripped down Lenten sensibility, much like the simple classical guitar arrangement in this video.
While the musical fast in my community last year was unplanned, the 18th century Lutheran churches in Germany fasted from music from the first Sunday of Lent (Quadragesima Sunday) to Good Friday. Imagine this music bursting forth after 40 days of musical "silence". This Passion Chorale appears 5 times in Bach's St. Matthew's Passion, and would have been as well-known a tune to his congregation as it is to us. It had been used repeatedly as a cantus firmus - Thomaskirche's parishioners would have known as many as 20 settings of it. The deepest roots of the piece, however, are not liturgical, but a 16th century love song by Hasler!
Tell us what Lent is like musically in your community...what's your favorite Lenten hymn?
Bach's final manuscript of the piece is thought by some to be among the most beautiful of handwritten musical scores ever. The music is written in two colors, with the chorale pieces in a deep red. See a page here: “St. Matthew Passion”: autograph revision of the St. Matthew Passion