J.S. Bach’s magnificent St. Matthew Passion is perhaps the most prominent musical composition that we associate with Lent. The most well-known part of the St. Matthew Passion itself is the “Passion Chorale”, which  often appears a hymn called  “O Sacred Head Surrounded”, or “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.”  

     What’s not as well known is that Bach is author of neither the basic melody nor the words: he merely incorporated into his composition (with some significant adaptation) what was already a familiar hymn called O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden (“O Head Full of Blood and Wounds”).  The music, which dates from about the year 1600, was composed by Hans Leo Hassler.  

     Like other familiar devotional songs such as the Schubert Ave Maria and the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria, the tune was originally composed as a secular piece and only later matched up with religious lyrics.  The German words were adopted by hymnist Paul Gerhardt from a much earlier Latin song traditionally attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux called Membra Jesu Nostri. Gerhardt’s words and Hassler’s music first appeared together in 1656 in a book published by Johann Crüger; Bach incorporated the song into his St.Matthew’s Passion in 1727.

     The first English version of the hymn was published by John Gambold in 1752, and there have been numerous English translations since.  The two most prominent are the 1830 translation by James Waddle Alexander that begins “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” and Sir Henry Williams Baker’s version, which opens with the words “O Sacred Head Surrounded.”     The lovely a cappella version of the hymn below sung by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, is largely based on Baker’s translation (except for the last stanza, which seems to come from Waddell). The words are posted underneath.

(Feature image: “Christ With Crown of Thorns” by Antonio de Pereda)

O Sacred Head Surrounded
By Crown Of Piercing Thorn!
O Bleeding Head, So Wounded,
Reviled And Put To Scorn!
The Power Of Death Comes Over Thee,
The Glow Of Life Decays,
Yet Angel Hosts Adore Thee
And Tremble As They Gaze.

I See Thy Strength And Vigour
All Fading In The Strife,
And Death With Cruel Rigor,
Bereaving Thee Of Life;
O Agony And Dying!
O Love To Sinners Free!
Jesus, All Grace Supplying,
O Turn Thy Face On Me.

In This, Thy Bitter Passion,
Good Shepherd, Think Of Me
With Thy Most Sweet Compassion,
Unworthy Though I Be:
Beneath Thy Cross Abiding
For Ever Would I Rest,
In Thy Dear Love Confiding,
And With Thy Presence Blest.

Be near when I am dying,
O show thy cross to me;
And for my succor flying,
Come, Lord, and set me free:
These eyes, new faith receiving,
From Thee shall never move move;
For he who dies believing,
Dies safely, through thy love.

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