Music for Passiontide, X — “Ah, holy Jesus”

One of the hymns that we often sing at Good Friday services is “Ah, holy Jesus.” The hymn powerfully combines an expression of grief at the horrible suffering of the innocent Jesus with the sorrowful recognition of the guilt of each individual believer, whose sin was the occasion for Christ’s death.

Our hymn is an English translation of a German hymn inspired by a passage of devotional prose written in Latin by an an Italian-Norman Benedictine monk.

Leaving most of the genealogical details aside for now, the German hymn — known as Herzliebster Jesu — was written in 1630 by Johann Heermann (1585-1647), a Lutheran pastor and poet.

Our Hymnal’s translation of his hymn is by Robert Bridges (1844-1930), who also gave us the English words to “O sacred head, sore wounded” and “When morning gilds the skies,” among others. Bridges was an English poet laureate as well as a skilled musician.

The tune to which we sing these words was written for this hymn about 10 years after it first appeared by Johann Crüger, 8 of whose hymn tunes are in our Hymnal.

If you want to sing this hymn at home tonight or tomorrow, I’ve placed accompaniment recordings below the words. One of them is with a piano, one with an organ, and both only include the playing of 4 stanzas; you’ll have to sing the last stanza a cappella.

1. Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended, 
that man to judge thee hath in hate pretended? 
By foes derided, by thine own rejected, 
O most afflicted! 

2. Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? 
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee! 
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; 
I crucified thee. 

3. Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offer’d; 
the slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffer’d. 
For man’s atonement, while we nothing heedeth, 
God intercedeth.

4. For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation, 
thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation; 
thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion, 
for my salvation. 

5. Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee, 
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee, 
think on thy pity and thy love unswerving, 
not my deserving.

Here is the organ accompaniment, which is introduced by the playing of the last line of the hymn. The name of the organist is not given.

Below is Andrew Remillard’s rendition of this hymn on piano.

Here is Crüger’s tune as it appears in one of the chorales in J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The text is the German original of the first stanza of Heermann’s hymn.

Rheinische Kantorei, Hermann Max, conductor

Here are three stanzas to the hymn sung (in English, with Bach’s harmonization) by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Finally, here is a setting of the hymn for viola and choir, composed by John Ferguson (b. 1941), who conducts the St. Olaf Choir. The violist is Charles Gray.