The perfect version of this work

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,[1] 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.

 

Making ashes out of you and me

What a shame that Ash Wednesday comes but once a year. For many of us, that’s the only opportunity we have to experience what many people consider the lyrical poet Thomas Conry’s masterwork. Let’s take a closer look.

The first lines are something of a ruse, are they not? Listen:

We rise again from ashes,
from the good we’ve failed to do.
We rise again from ashes,
to create ourselves anew.
If all our world is ashes,
then must our lives be true,
an offering of ashes, an offering to you.

We are lulled by the conventional rhyme scheme, ABABABB, into expecting that the theme will be conventional, as well.  The speaker cannily completes the rhyme by using the same word, “ashes,” three times, as if to signal, “Nothing new here, no  particular reason to pay attention.” Even the finial sounds of the words, “ashes,” “do,” “ashes,” “anew,” and once again “ashes,” followed by “true” and “you” — do you hear it?  the “sh” followed by “oo” . . . it almost sounds like the soft, untroubled breath of a sleeper. “Shh . . .ooo.”  Our narrator appears almost to be snoring, does he not? He is deliberately lulling us to sleep.

But a surprise awaits us in the second stanza.

We offer you our failures,
we offer you attempts,
the gifts not fully given,
the dreams not fully dreamt.
Give our stumblings direction,
give our visions wider view,
an offering of ashes, an offering to you.

Gone are the soft sibilants of the previous lines, and instead, we are confronted with deliberately jarring plosives (/b/ /p/ /t/ /d/) in  “Gifts not fully given, / … dreams not fully dreamt.” Not fully, indeed.  The very percussive violence of the sound is a statement:  the speaker has awoken, and he is in distress, perhaps stuttering and spluttering like a confused patient who was supposed to be etherised upon a table, but they ran out of ether. “Give our stumblings direction,” he haltingly pleads – but then subsides again into the inarticulate vagueness, perhaps experiencing a swollen tongue:  “give our visions wider view,” he mouths with a wagging jaw, in an achingly poignant parody of the semi-conscious man struggling to make sense of a world where significance seems always to be verging on the horizon.

Notice that in this second stanza, the rhyme scheme has subtly shifted from the pedestrian ABABABB to the chaotic and freewheeling ABCBDEE. This indicates that the speaker is confused.

The third stanza seems to find the speaker in a contemplative mood, lapsing again into what appears, at first, to be conventional, even clichéd imagery:  rising from ashes, sunshine turning to rain, and so on:

Then rise again from ashes,
let healing come to pain,
though spring has turned to winter,
and sunshine turned to rain.
The rain we’ll use for growing,
and create the world anew
from an offering of ashes, an offering to you.

But what are we to make of those troublesome conjunctions “then” and “though”? They can’t merely be metric placeholders, can they, with no intrinsic significance?  Don’t you believe it. Every syllable in this concise little jewel of a work is freighted with meaning. Some of the meaning is so subtle, it would wither under the strong light of scrutiny, much like a seedling which is brought to light in the springtime which, in an unprecedented meteorological event possible only in poetry, turns to winter, and then is sunny, and then rainy, and then becomes ashes, or possibly used to be ashes. Delicate seedlings just can’t take that kind of abuse; and so it is with conjunctions in the hands of the poet Conry. Exquisite.

And now the tour de force:  the final stanza.  Here we discover at last the full blown expression of the hints and murmuring suggestions sprinkled like so many ashes throughout the rest of the poem.  The speaker proclaims in triumph:

Thanks be to the Father,
who made us like himself.
Thanks be to his Son,
who saved us by his death.
Thanks be to the Spirit
who creates the world anew
from an offering of ashes, an offering to you.

Do you see?  Do you see?  It was the ashes all along. Ashes!

***
This essay originally ran in the National Catholic Register at some point, I forget when
photo credit: mkorsakov Asche via photopin (license)