Today, I wanted to put together a collection of music for Holy Week. Music posts always take far, far longer than I expect, because I know exactly what I want the music to sound like, but it takes forever to find the best version — if it even exists anywhere besides in my head.
I was looking for a recording of “O Sacred Head Surrounded,” under the impression that the words were composed by Bernard of Clairvaux. Not so, according to some quick research:
The hymn is based on a long medieval Latin poem, Salve mundi salutare, with stanzas addressing the various parts of Christ‘s body hanging on the Cross. The last part of the poem, from which the hymn is taken, is addressed to Christ’s head, and begins “Salve caput cruentatum.” The poem is often attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), but is now attributed to the Medieval poet Arnulf of Leuven (died 1250).
I also thought the melody and harmony were by Bach. Also more complicated than that:
The music for the German and English versions of the hymn is by Hans Leo Hassler, written around 1600 for a secular love song, “Mein G’müt ist mir verwirret“, which first appeared in print in the 1601 Lustgarten Neuer Teutscher Gesäng. The tune was appropriated and rhythmically simplified for Gerhardt’s German hymn in 1656 by Johann Crüger. Johann Sebastian Bach arranged the melody and used five stanzas of the hymn in the St Matthew Passion ... Franz Liszt included an arrangement of this hymn in the sixth station, Saint Veronica, of his Via Crucis (the Way of the Cross), S. 504a. The Danish composer Rued Langgaard composed a set of variations for string quartet on this tune. It is also employed in the final chorus of “Sinfonia Sacra”, the 9th symphony of the English composer Edmund Rubbra.
And so, overwhelmed with information that made it harder, not easier, to narrow down exactly the version I wanted, I tried video after video. It seems I’m not the only one who adores this hymn. It’s been recorded a lot, by just about every group, in just about every style and level of skill imaginable. I even found an ASL version, recorded in the shadows of somebody’s kitchen.
I listened to dozens of versions. “That one’s pretty!” my daughter called out from the other room, maybe hoping to help me settle on something and quit hopping from one video to the next.
When I got to this earnest, nasal rendition
I started to cry like an idiot, and not out of frustration.
This is the week when the whole world is looking to grab ahold of the right version — the whole world, in and out of various translations, deleting some stanzas, ruminating over and expanding others, practicing and training with different assemblies of people, harmonizing, re-harmonizing, simplifying, making it garish, making it sentimental, making it florid, making it pale.
There were versions by small groups of women, huge choruses of highly trained choir boys, struggling teenage girls who want to be Amy Grant, overambitious tenors who titled their rendition “O Sacred Head Surrounded Barbershop Style,” and dozens and dozens of isolated tracks — just the bass, just the alto, and so on, because it is a difficult work. A difficult work.
There was a Filipino choir belting it out in a strangely baroque basilica, their voices fighting with the tropical birdsong coming through the windows. In some recordings, there was a persistent buzz from a mishandled mic; in some recordings, the camera man wanted to sing along, and rattled the pages of his hymnal, too.
Stupidly, I cried and cried. I stopped looking for the perfect rendition.
Everyone is trying to grapple with what is going to happen on that terrible hilltop. Everyone is trying to make sense of it, to locate the perfect version that satisfies, to comprehend it completely.
It doesn’t matter how accomplished you are, how well you have prepared. It cannot be done. It is too difficult a work.