Musical Reflections for Good Friday

English Seminary Rector on Bach’s Passion

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The various liturgies and services which take place during Lent, and in particular during Holy Week and the Triduum, are marked by select hymns aimed at leading the faithful in their reflections on the Passion and Death of Christ.

One of the most common pieces is “Oh Sacred Head So Wounded,” a piece which Johan Sebastian Bach incorporated into his Passion According to Saint Matthew, composed in the 1700s.

The hymn is based on the medieval Latin poem  “Salve mundi salutare,” which describes the various parts of Christ’s wounded Body as he hung on the Cross.

To find out more about this piece, ZENIT spoke with Msgr. Philip Whitmore, current rector of the Venerable English College in Rome, and an accomplished musician who has contributed a number of programs about the musical traditions in the Church for Vatican Radio.

Bach did not in fact compose the melody, which was originally written in the 1600s as a secular piece, the monsignor explained. Instead, he incorporated it into the overall piece. The version usually heard in churches, he said, “is one of the simpler versions from earlier on” in the overall piece. “But, it’s a tune that’s particularly associated with that setting.”

The Passion according to Saint Matthew was one of two “Passions” written by Bach, the other being the Passion of Saint John. It was first performed on Good Friday 1727, in the Lutheran Church St. Thomas’ Church, in Leipzig.

The performance of Saint Matthew’s Passion is very long, Monsignor Whitmore said, noting that it could take up to three hours. “It was actually only part of the liturgy in St. Thomas’ Church, Leipzig in 1727,” he explained, adding that “they had a lot more staying power in the Lutheran churches at that time than we do now.»

The overall piece is divided into two parts, and is intended to be performed before and after the Good Friday service. The first part recounts Jesus’ announcement of his death, the woman anointing him with costly oil, the Last Supper, His agony in Gethsemane, and concludes with His arrest. The second part begins with Christ’s interrogation before Caiaphas, His being condemned by Pilate, His crucifixion, death, and burial.

The piece consists of “a number of different chorales that appear to punctuate the narrative of the Passion,” Monsignor Whitmore said. “But that particular” – Oh Sacred Head So Wounded – “comes five times, with different sets of words, and different harmonizations each time.”

“There’s a particular, very solemn moment, immediately after our Lord’s death,” he added, “when you hear a very, very beautiful, very complex harmonization of that tune in Bach’s setting in the Passion according to Saint Matthew. It is a very wonderful moment.”

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Ann Schneible

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