Music for the Fifth Sunday in Lent — March 21, 2021

Wash me throughly – Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876)

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Born in London, Samuel Sebastian was the eldest child of composer Samuel and the grandson of Charles Wesley. His middle name derived from his father’s lifelong admiration for the music of Bach. After singing in the choir of the Chapel Royal as a boy, Samuel Sebastian embarked on a career as a musician, and was appointed organist at Hereford Cathedral in 1832. He moved to Exeter Cathedral three years later, and subsequently held appointments at Leeds Parish Church (from 1842), Winchester Cathedral (from 1849) and Gloucester Cathedral (1865-1876). In 1839 he received both his Bachelor of Music degree and a Doctor of Music degree from Oxford. He became a Professor of Organ at the Royal Academy of Music in 1850.

Famous in his lifetime as one of his country’s leading organists and choirmasters, he composed almost exclusively for the Church of England, which continues to cherish his memory. Unashamedly Romantic yet original in style, Wesley’s music speaks with a powerful and wholly distinctive voice. His better-known anthems include Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace and Wash me throughly (1840), heard here sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Wash me throughly from my wickedness,

and forgive me all my sin.

For I acknowledge my faults,

and my sin is ever before me. (Psalm 51:2-3)


O Haupt voll blut und Wunden (St Matthew Passion – BWV 244) – J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750)

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Early Passion settings like Heinrich Schütz’s St. Matthew Passion were essentially Bible texts. By Bach’s time interpolations were customary. With his librettist collaborators Bach would first decide where he might interrupt the Biblical story with traditional chorales. These chorales were chosen for their ability to summarize some concept or action we have witnessed in the story. They are also present for their appeal to the listener, who knows them as familiar hymns. The melodies and words, often hundreds of years old, are the given element; the harmonizations are geared to their moment in this piece, the composer’s own commentary and punctuation. For the big choruses which frame the two parts of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, the listeners are recruited as mourners and witnesses to mourn together, to take responsibility, to ask forgiveness.

The chorale heard here is based on a German Passion hymn written by Paul Gerhardt, who in turn based it on a long medieval Latin poem, Salve mundi salutare. The hymn was first translated into English in 1752. In 1899 the English poet Robert Bridges made a fresh translation from the original Latin, beginning “O sacred Head, sore wounded, defiled and put to scorn.” This is the version with which we are most familiar, found at number 90 in The New English Hymnal.

O Haupt, voll Blut und Wunden,
voll Schmerz und voller Hohn!
O Haupt, zu Spott gebunden
mit einer Dornenkron!
O Haupt, sonst schön gezieret
Mit höchster Ehr und Zier,
Jetzt aber hoch schimpfieret:
Gegrüsset seist du mir!

Du edles Angesichte,
Dafür sonst schrickt und scheut
Das große Weltgewichte,
Wie bist du so verspeit,
Wie bist du so erbleichet!
Wer hat dein Augenlicht,
Dem sonst kein Licht nicht gleichet,
so schändlich zugericht’?

O Head, full of blood and wounds,
full of suffering and shame!
O Head, bound in mockery
with a crown of thorns!
O Head, once beautifully adorned
with the highest honor and beauty,
yet now supremely defiled:
be greeted by me!

You noble countenance,
before which rather should tremble and cower
the great powers of the world,
how spat upon are you,
How ashen you have become!
Who has treated the light of your eyes,
which is like no other light,
so shamefully?


O Mensch bewein dein Sünde groß (BWV 622) – J. S. Bach

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Another of the interpolated chorales in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, O Mensch bewein dein Sünde groß (O man, bewail thy sin so great), is at the end of Part 1, just after Jesus’ disciples have deserted him and fled. Once again, the listener is called upon to take a role of responsibility in the unfolding story. The Lutheran Passion hymn upon which this chorale is based was written by Sebald Heyden in 1530; the lyrics were written for an existing melody written around 1524 by Matthäus Greitler. Here Bach has fashioned that melody into his most celebrated organ chorale prelude.

A translation of the first stanza follows:

O Man, bemoan thy grievous sins

For which Christ left His Father’s

Bosom and came down to earth

And was born for us of a pure

And tender Virgin as He wished

To become our Mediator. He raised

The dead to life, healed the sick

Until the time appointed for Him

To be sacrificed for us, when He

Bore the heavy burden of our sins

On the Cross.


Gerald Harder