The following is part five of my Holy Week Reflections on J. S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion. I will include a little information each day along with scripture, musical examples and translated text. The Spotify Playlist at the end of each post will be the complete highlight playlist.
I hope you will join me as we travel through just a portion of this most sublime work.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244) written in 1727 for a Good Friday service in 1727 at the Church of St. Thomas in Leipzig, Germany.
The selection I have chosen for today is the Chorale that we know as “O Sacred Head” and is also referred to as the Passion Chorale. J.S. Bach employs the use of this choral tune 5 times during the St. Matthew Passion. The general, Chorale tune was a very important moment in the Lutheran worship service. Since Martin Luther established the importance not only of music in the worship service, but of the congregation participating in the music at some point during the service. The Chorale was the moment when the listener would become a member of the choir. To do this, they felt the music should be stately and steady and move by step. The song should be well known and easy to sing.
This Passion Chorale was one of Bach’s favorites and he used it many times throughout his life. A quick check of your hymnal will uncover the fact that Bach (1685-1750) only harmonizes the tune and that it was originally written by Hans Hassler (1564-1612) several years before Bach’s birth. Hassler actually wrote this as a love song in tribute to a beautiful maiden. However, the feeling of unrequited love in this song was then used in a Catholic meditation written by Bernard of Clairvaux who was an Abbot for the Cistercian Order. It became a very popular use for this song so that Martin Luther, who knew the writings of Bernard of Clairvaux , brought this tradition over with him to the Lutheran service. When Bach choses to harmonize this music, he is paying tribute to a tradition that has already been in place for over a hundred years. He knows that when people hear and sing this melody the will automatically picture Christ Crucified in their minds eye.
The Scripture Text
Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. they put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’ they said. they spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. After they mocked him, they took off the robe and but his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
Matthew 27: 27-31
O head, full of blood and wounds, Full of sorrow and full of scoffing!
O head, wreathed for mockery with a crown of thorns!
O head, once beautifully adorned with highest honour and reknown,
But now highly abused:
Let me hail thee!
Thou noble countenance,
Before which shrinks and cowers the great weight of the world,
How art thou spat upon!
How pallid art thou!
Who has treated the light of thine eyes, Light that no light else can equal,
So shamefully amiss?
Below is the entire playlist for the week. Today we are listening and reflecting on track five