For July 4th: Bach to Paul Simon
I’m not a big consumer of liturgical music. I still listen to Handel’s Messiah on Christmas. So it surprised me when I found myself enjoying a boxed set of LPs of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion recorded about 50 years ago. It’s in German, of course, so I’m not following the libretto, just the voices and instruments.
There’s a theme that will be familiar to those, like me, who have attended a church that features Christian hymns. The title varies, but is sometimes rendered as “O Sacred head, sore wounded.” The German text is by Paul Gerhardt, based on a poem attributed to either Arnulf of Leuven or Bernard of Clairvaux, one a medieval sacred poet and the other a Cistercian abbot. Surprisingly, the melody comes from a secular song by Hans Leo Hassler, written around 1600. The title is “Mein Gmüth ist mir verwirret” which translates as “My mind is confused” and the cause is the sight of a beautiful young woman.
Paul Simon’s “American Tune” is based on the same melody.