Since it was Easter yesterday, Anna wanted to listen to Bach’s St Matthew Passion while we pottered around the house.
A certain passage grabbed my ear, a hymn called “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” — in English, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.”
This beautiful tune was immediately familiar to me, but I couldn’t quite place it. Anna says she’s sung it many times in church. Bach didn’t write it; the text is an older Latin poem translated into German by Paul Gerhardt, set by Johann Crüger to a secular love song called “Mein G’müt ist mir verwirret” by Hans Leo Hassler.
Not only did Bach appropriate the hymn from all the above sources, but he recycled it several times, within the St Matthew Passion and elsewhere in his work. I think I recognize it from the D minor violin partita. According to Wikipedia, Bach used the tune
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.
That’s all well and good, but the real reason for my musical deja vu is that the hymn is the basis for Paul Simon’s classic “American Tune.” Here’s a performance from 1974 — Paul’s hair and mustache were especially unfortunate at that time but the music sounded great.
Here’s another performance, thirty-four years later, on the Colbert Report, and here’s Paul performing it in a duet with Willie Nelson. For maximum enjoyment, try singing “American Tune” over the Bach video above, a lot of it fits perfectly. I also made a mashup of the two; if you’d like to hear it, get in touch.
Rhymin’ Simon may not have taken the hymn directly from Bach; it’s more likely that he got it from folksinger Tom Glazer, who used it in his tune “Because All Men Are Brothers.” It’s featured in the folk music bible Rise Up Singing, which Paul Simon is undoubtedly familiar with. Here’s all that complex genealogy in convenient network diagram form:
Bach feels a lot more contemporary and relevant to me than most of his bewigged eighteenth-century European peers. I never made the connection before between one of my favorite Paul Simon tunes and my favorite Baroque composer, but in retrospect it seems obvious. The whole thing confirms my belief that the most creative artists are the least original. Art is a process of recombining existing memes, not creating new ideas out of whole cloth. The deepest music taps into rich veins of shared musical heritage spanning centuries and continents, from the mists of European history through a devoutly Christian Austrian to a series of earnest American folk singers to me.
I was told by a Bach-loving friend that I’ll be hearing the “O Sacred Head” chords everywhere now that I’m paying attention. If you have some examples to share, please let me know.