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The Musical History of “O Savior, Thou Who Wearest”

This week a friend asked me to write an arrangement of “O Savior, Thou Who Wearest a Crown” for vocal duet with piano accompaniment. Dealing with Bach can be a little daunting, so I decided to look at the where the music came from for the LDS version of that hymn.

Origin Story

Before the LDS version and even before the Bach version, the hymn Mormons know as “O Savior, Thou Who Wearest a Crown” started off as an excerpt from a longer Latin text, Salve mundi salutare. During the Protestant Revolution, this text was translated into German as “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” (literally, “O head full of blood and wounds”). This is the text that was set to the now-familiar tune. A century later, this text made its way into English as “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.”

Two centuries after that, when the LDS hymnal was being compiled, and this chorale was suggested for inclusion, like many Protestant hymns, its text was subject to revision. For some hymns, these changes were minor, but in this case, Karen Lynn Davidson’s text is a substantial reimagining of the usual English translation (of the Latin original). Though it bears a common theme and some common images and phrases, it’s a unique text in its own right (kind of like the relationship between Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story).

So having discussed the text, let’s talk about the music. Here’s a typical LDS rendition:

It’s worth noting that Bach never wrote the music in the LDS hymnal. The LDS version is an amalgamation of various settings from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Here’s a video that shows four of Bach’s different versions:

Now, as the LDS hymnal notes, the printed music — that already doesn’t the entirety of any of Bach’s settings — also isn’t Bach’s on another level. Bach got his melody from Hans Leo Hassler. I love the hemiolas in Hassler’s version. They give the setting a strong lilt:

And although Hassler used this tune to set the German chorale text, it turns out its dance lilt was not accidental. Hassler originally wrote that tune for a secular love song that began, “My peace of mind is shattered by a tender maiden’s charms” (trans. per Lilliane Doukhan):


Continued Adventures

So that’s the origins story.

Since then, like a good comic book character, the hymn tune has taken on a bunch of other iterations. Here’s Mendelssohn’s version, which has some achingly lovely counterpoint:

And here’s a darkly beautiful setting by Max Reger:

Of course, a tune and text this iconic have been taken up by contemporary artists. Leaving aside the more cheesefest versions (I’ll spare you, Gentle Reader), here’s Amy Grant’s take. I kind of like the overdubbed harmony:

The InsideOut a cappella version is a pleasant classic for returned missionaries of a certain generation (i.e., mine). In a way, it brings things full circle from the Hassler original, though contemporary a cappella production values lead to a more lockstep tempo and a flatter, more varnished sound:

Where does all this leave me in writing my arrangement?

Mostly, that I’m free to use the tune in any way I like. I already have an idea for how to set it that reminds me both of a completely different Bach work and of Adolphe Adam.