From Heavenly Harmony
Not Just a One-Hit Wonder
by Ken Myers
If the name of the composer Hans Leo Hassler is recognized at all, it is probably in connection with a melody frequently sung and heard during Holy Week. In hymnals, the tune is often identified as the Passion Chorale, and it is the melody to which we sing the Passiontide hymn, “O sacred Head, now wounded.” The tune first appeared in print in 1601, in a collection of secular songs by Hassler. The text that originally accompanied that tune was a wistful five-stanza song of unrequited love, Mein G’muth ist mir verwirret. The opening lines of that sad ballad lamented: “My mind’s confused within me, made thus by a tender maiden. I am utterly astray. My heart hurts badly.” And so on, for five anguished stanzas.
Ten years after that song was published, the melody was appropriated for use with another downcast poem, this time an eleven-stanza Lutheran hymn, Herzlich tut mich verlangen, “My heart is filled with longing.” The grief in this case was a response to severe physical torment and a sense of futility occasioned by an outbreak of plague. The poet longs to leave the prison of all-too-mortal flesh and be united with God, clothed in a body “transfigured in beauty through Christ.” The melody that Hassler wrote with the intent of expressing the melancholy of failed romance was repurposed to convey a much deeper hope within the context of a more severe suffering.
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Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also served as editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine, and This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. He also serves as music director at All Saints Anglican Church in Ivy, Virginia. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
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