Visit our new site at

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Sunday Afternoon Music Video: Passion Chorale (O Sacred Head)

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


  1. Thanks for this Michelle!

    I am not familiar with the role of the hebdomidarian. Sounds interesting though...

    One of my favourite Lenten hymns is "Tree of Life and Awesome Mystery." There is something about it that just informs my soul that it is Lent.

  2. I would have gotten really tired of "Lord, Who Throughout" too. How about "In the Cross of Christ I Glory" or "Beneath the Cross of Jesus"? There is a nice contemporary hymn in the New Century Hymnal, "O God, How We Have Wandered" that is set to the Bach piece you shared. I'm not much of a singer but I think I could have croaked it out.
    And I too was unfamiliar with the role, or even the word, hebdomidarian! Off to the dictionary!

  3. ...oops! I've put a link to explain hebdomidarian - basically it's the leader of sung prayer in a monastic community.

    Sue, I love Tree of Life, too. There is a lovely Latin piece round that goes with it.

    Auntie Knickers - oh...In the Cross of Christ I Glory is not one we've used, what a terrific suggestion!

  4. We have been singing "Jesus Draw Me Ever Nearer" (just two verses, though, not all three) at the end of every service during Lent. It is our "sending song" after the candle extinguishing ritual. It's very cool b/c now everyone is singing and it's the most full-voiced song during any of the three services.

    Today the choir sang "Out of the Deep" from the Rutter Requiem, with cello! and the Kyrie from a Caribbean Mass, with steel drum and conga--so cool! It was a thoroughly awesome day for music.

    We are doing those five passion chorales on Good Friday...very exciting. But I almost wish we'd been music-less to make the impact stronger. Maybe another year...(in our music-heavy and uber-gifted church? unlikely, but who knows...)

  5. I have to say, Sue, I had to look that term up on! LOVED the guitar link.

    I can't say I have a favorite Lent hymn. The story about "Lord, Who Throughout" kind of cracked me up, because that's probably the only Lent hymn I could name.

    I haven't been leading a strong Lent in my new congregation this year. I didn't/don't know the culture enough yet to feel comfortable going into it full force. I've talked about it a little most weeks, but haven't pushed a major penitential season. I've been doing a sermon series on the Psalms and talked about how they can inform and enrich our prayer life which is a good thing to do during Lent, but I didn't make a big deal out of Lenten disciplines. Next year I'll go there a little more I think.

  6. Do you know, we dont actually KNOW "Lord, who throughout.." here!
    Our equivalent would be "Forty days and forty nights" - and the thought of singing that every day throughout Lent makes me search longingly for hair shirts instead!
    One lovely aspect of Lenten music at St M's is that the canticles for Evensong are sung to unaccompanied settings...some plainsong, some early Fauxburdens...We dont' have the resources for Byrd or Gibbons,which were part of my Lenten experience in younger days...but still special.
    In terms of tend to hunt through to find hymns from throughout the year with a vaguely penitential theme
    "Lord Jesus, think on me"
    "Drop, drop slow tears"(a Gibbons tune - sheer heaven!) etc
    But now we're into Passiontide it's going to be lots of "My Song is Love unknown" etc...And we get to O Sacred Head during the Three Hours on Good Friday. That day, and no other. Awe inspiring!

  7. We have been singing "I Want Jesus to Go With Me" every week at some point in the service, and I'm going to bring back the theme, in asking whether we *really* want to go with him, in the Palm Sunday message. I don't know if we're tired of it or not! I'm not, anyway.

  8. "O Sacred Head" is by far and away my favorite, although close seconds are "What Wond'rous Love is This" and "My Song is Love Unknown," both relative newcomers to our tradition's hymnody. Yesterday we sang "I Want Jesus to Go With Me" -- it took the congregation most of the verses to really get the melody, but by the end it sounded pretty good.

    When I was a child, we sang a Lenten hymn I enjoyed at the time, whose chorus went "Thousand, thousand thanks shall be, dearest Jesus unto thee"...can someone help my senior moment and ID that hymn for me?

  9. One of my favorite Lenten hymns is "The First One Ever." It's just breathtaking when sung simply with a guitar. "Were You There" is also a favorite.

  10. Hard to beat "There Is a Green Hill Far Away" especially if you take the last verse a cappella.
    Does anybody else sing, "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross"?

  11. I like Tom Conry's "Ashes" a lot--it has a very positive presentation of repentance with its repeated refrain about rising again from ashes, like the phoenix. It's particularly appropriate for Ash Wednesday, of course, but I have sung it off and on with Katie during bedtime prayers during Lent. She also likes "Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days"--but not every day!

    And, oh, what a penance six weeks without singing would be for me, Michelle. So glad this year is better...

  12. I mentioned at Morning Office today that I'd written this post, and the prior's immediate response was "So, what suggestions did they have?"

    "Forty days and forty nights" turned out to be (1) in the breviary hymnal and (2) known to some of us. Huzzah!

    Thank you all for sharing a bit of your sacred music with my community and with us all.

    (And yes, Kathryn - I'd have preferred a hair shirt to yet another time through "Lord, who.." and Mother Laura, as penances go, not one I'd willingly repeat, but instructive nonetheless!)

    May Passiontide be grace for you all...

  13. Lutheranchik ~ The song you mentioned is "Christ the Life of All the Living" ~ in ELW 339/LBW 97

    Did others mention "Ah Holy Jesus" and "O Sacred Head Now Wounded"? Those are two of my favorites.


You don't want to comment here; instead, come visit our new blog, We'll see you there!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.