Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The hymn O Sacred Head

The versions of the hymn 'O Sacred Head' are translations of the medieval poem Salve Caput Cruentatum.  There are two most well know versions: 'O Sacred Head sore wounded' by Robert Bridges and 'O Sacred Head ill - used' by Ronald Knox.  The poem was first translated into the vernacular in German by the prolific Lutheran hymnist Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676). Although Gerhardt translated the whole poem, it is the closing section which has become best known, and is often sung as a hymn in its own right. The German hymn begins, "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden".

Paulus Gerhardt

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 1601. 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 his St Matthew Passion, stanza 6 also in his cantata Sehet, wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem, BWV 159. Bach used the melody on different words in his Christmas Oratorio, both in the first choral (#5) and the triumphant final chorus. 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. Here is a recording of from the St. Matthew Passion of J.S. Bach:

The hymn was first translated into English in 1752 by John Gambold (1711-1771), an Anglican vicar in Oxfordshire. His translation begins, "O Head so full of bruises." In 1830 a new translation of the hymn was made by an American Presbyterian minister, James Waddel Alexander (1804-1859). Alexander's translation, beginning "O sacred head, now wounded," became one of the most widely used in 19th and 20th century hymnals. Another English translation, based on the German, was made in 1861 by Sir Henry Baker. Published in Hymns Ancient and Modern, it begins, "O sacred head surrounded by crown of piercing thorn."

In 1899 the English poet laureate Robert Bridges (1844-1930) made a fresh translation from the original Latin, beginning "O sacred Head, sore wounded, defiled and put to scorn." This is the version used in the Church of England's New English Hymnal (1986) and several other late 20th-century hymn books.  The English Hymnal, 1906 has a translation atrributed to "Y.H.", referring to Bridges' translations for the Yattendon Hymnal, of which he was the editor.  This is the Robert Bridges version:

O sacred head, sore wounded,
defiled and put to scorn;
O kingly head surrounded
with mocking crown of thorn:
What sorrow mars thy grandeur?
Can death thy bloom deflower?
O countenance whose splendor
the hosts of heaven adore!

Thy beauty, long-desirèd,
hath vanished from our sight;
thy power is all expirèd,
and quenched the light of light.
Ah me! for whom thou diest,
hide not so far thy grace:
show me, O Love most highest,
the brightness of thy face.

I pray thee, Jesus, own me,
me, Shepherd good, for thine;
who to thy fold hast won me,
and fed with truth divine.
Me guilty, me refuse not,
incline thy face to me,
this comfort that I lose not,
on earth to comfort thee.

In thy most bitter passion
my heart to share doth cry,
with thee for my salvation
upon the cross to die.
Ah, keep my heart thus moved
to stand thy cross beneath,
to mourn thee, well-beloved,
yet thank thee for thy death.

My days are few, O fail not,
with thine immortal power,
to hold me that I quail not
in death's most fearful hour;
that I may fight befriended,
and see in my last strife
to me thine arms extended
upon the cross of life. 

 Robert Bridges

This hymn was a very popular staple of Protestant devotion throughout Europe and North America, existing in German, English, French and Dutch translations.  It would not have been heard in a Catholic church right until Monsignor Ronald Knox himself made a translation of the original Salve Caput Cruentatem that was to be published in the Westminster Hymnal of 1940: the version O Sacred Head Ill - Used.  Until the mid 20th century hymns of Protestant origin were completely forbidden to be sung in Catholic churches, and it is unlikely that Teresa would have heard it.

Monsignor Ronald Knox

O Sacred head ill-used,
By reed and bramble scarred,
That idle blows have bruised,
And mocking lips have marred,
How dimmed that eye so tender,
How wan those cheeks appear,
That angel hosts revere!

What marvel if thou languish,
Vigour and virtue fled,
Wasted and spent with anguish,
And pale as are the dead?
O by thy foes’ derision,
That death endured for me,
Grant that thy open vision
A sinner’s eyes may see.

Good Shepherd, spent with loving,
Look on me, who have strayed,
Oft by those lips unmoving
With mild and honey stayed;
Spurn not a sinner’s crying 
Nor from the love out cast,
But rest thy head in dying
On these frail arms at last.

In this thy sacred Passion
O that some share had I!
O may thy Cross’s fashion
O’erlook me when I die!
For these dear pains that rack thee
A sinner’s thanks receive;
O, lest in death I lack thee,
A sinner’s care relieve.

Since death must be my ending,
In that dread hour of need,
My friendless cause befriending,
Lord, to my rescue speed;
Thyself, dear Jesus, trace me
That passage to the grave,
And from thy Cross embrace me
With arms outstretched to save.

No doubt Teresa would have loved this hymn, so keen was she to spread devotion to the Sacred Head, and it would have been a consolation to her that it is now one of the most popular hymns to the Passion, when the devotion is still so little know of.  In her time the staple of Catholic hymns would have been the Crown of Jesus hymnal, a pretty nondescript collection of very sentimental verse and bad tunes, leaving much to be desired which has been the forerunner of the dreadful Celebration Hymnal and Hymns Old and New (or even Older..).  It is recorded that she had a a very sweet voice, and joined wholeheartedly in singing of devotional hymns.

Teresa was to state that the devotion to the Sacred Head would be the means to bring back England to the fold of the Catholic church.  Seeing that this devotion is one that is common to both Protestants and Catholics due to this hymn, she may well be proved right in the future.

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