Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Christmas Break and An American Tune

Sherman Oaks, California

This will be my last post for a week or two, so let me leave you with this story about a beautiful song that has thrived for more than four centuries.

Around the year 1599, German composer Hans Leo Hassler (pictured) wrote a romantic song about unrequited love entitled “Mein Gmuth Ist Mir Verwirret” (“My Feelings Confuse Me”). You can hear Hassler’s original melody line by listening to the third sound clip on this page.

The song must have been popular. Two generations later, in 1656, German pastor Paul Gerhardt, who believed in preaching Lutheran virtues through song, combined Hassler’s music with lyrics translated from a medieval poem about Jesus’ suffering on the cross. The resulting hymn, entitled “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” (“Oh Head, Covered With Blood and Wounds”), is still in the The Lutheran Hymnal, at Number 172. All of the stanzas of Gerhardt’s version are re-created here.

The hymn was one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s favorites, and, in 1727, he incorporated its musical ideas repeatedly into his St. Matthew’s Passion. Click here to listen to the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir perform movements 39 through 41.

In the early 1970s, American singer-songwriter Paul Simon changed the arrangement and wrote contemporary lyrics. Renamed “American Tune,” the song was released on the 1973 solo album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon.

Art Garfunkel has stated that one of his regrets is that he and Simon broke up before they could record “American Tune.” The duo made up for lost time when they performed the song in 1981 in front of half a million people, few of whom knew that they were listening to the latest variation of a 400-year-old German lament.



Blogger Tom Salemi said...


7:53 AM  
Blogger gesine palmer said...

Struck me years ago, the connection between the Gerhardt-Piece and the song by S&G, thank you for this nice tracing!

9:41 PM  
Anonymous Krieg Moore said...

When I was a wee lad (in 1973) and went on an orientation camp for CSU Hayward, a faculty member put on "American Tune" using it's connection to classical music, to say nothing is really new and indeed, it is not - only about 3 years late on my comment. The secular German predecessor is a nice Jungian touch, it being in a Hymnal and all.

4:17 AM  

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