Not just a one-hit wonder

by Ken Myers

[This article originally appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of Touchstone magazine. Recordings of musical works mentioned are assembled at the bottom of this page.]

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 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.

More than 40 years after Hassler’s death, another Lutheran composer, Johann Crüger, realized that Hassler’s melody had within it the capacity to communicate a still more intense emotional state: the contemplation of the sufferings of Christ on the cross. Crüger was aware of a ten-stanza hymn written by pastor and poet Paul Gerhardt: O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, “O Head full of blood and wounds.” In the hymn, based on a work by Bernard of Clairvaux and written in the first person, a believer meditates on the horror of Christ’s suffering — for which the guilty sinner is responsible — and the hope and comfort this grisly death made possible.

In the 1656 edition of his popular hymnal Praxis pietatis melica, Crüger perceptively linked Gerhardt’s pious text with Hassler’s poignant tune and the Passion Chorale was born. Lutheran congregations began singing this melody during Holy Week (as do many congregations of various churches to this day) and a century later, Bach would employ this tune five times at critical points in his magisterial St. Matthew Passion.

Working in Two Idioms

If Hans Leo Hassler had written nothing but that single melody, the Church would be extremely grateful. But at the time of his death in 1612 he left behind a significant catalog of sacred choral music for which many choirs and worshipers are (or at least should be) grateful.

Born into a musical family in 1564 in Nuremburg, Hassler’s early musical training exposed him to the most accomplished art of the Flemish Renaissance composers, especially the work of Orlande de Lassus (see my “Eloquent Lamentation”). At the time, composers from the Lowlands were universally regarded as the greatest masters of complex choral composition. But beginning around 1550, a number of composers working in Venice were experimenting with new compositional techniques that exploited the unique acoustic characteristics of the Basilica San Marco, today a popular tourist site. The spacious interior with its many lofts invited compositions with multiple choirs — including voices and instruments — that could echo and converse with one another. This “polychoral” technique — eventually perfected in the early seventeenth century by Claudio Monteverdi — has a brighter and more vivacious quality than the more contemplative and “mathematical” style of the Flemish masters.

Hassler learned to work in both idioms. In 1584, at the age of 22, having already become an accomplished organist, Hassler went to Italy to study with one of the Venetian masters, Andrea Gabrieli. A year later he accepted a position as organist in Augsburg, serving in the chapel of a prominent merchant family. As musicologist Carl Schalk summarizes, in returning to Germany, Hassler “opened to the door for the new breezes blowing from the south.” Later German (and, not unimportantly, Lutheran) composers would eventually develop that musical vocabulary thereby moving German church music (in Schalk’s words) “into paths which would ultimately culminate in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.”

Presenting the Divine Dance

A superb introduction to Hassler’s “Flemish style” is available on a 1992 recording by the Ensemble Vocal Européen under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe. This album features Hassler’s Mass setting Missa super Dixit Maria. Each movement of this mass uses the musical elements from Hassler’s Annunciation motet, Dixit Maria ad angelum, with its text from St. Luke 1:38. There is none of the Venetian flash and glory here; direct melodies are enhanced by warm harmonies, evocative of Mary’s simple obedience.

This album also includes five Latin motets by Hassler, including his haunting setting of a text from Psalm 120, Ad Dominum cum tribularer, “When I was in trouble I called upon the Lord: and he heard me. Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips: and from a deceitful tongue.” Unlike the comforting simplicity of the Mass on this recording, this cryptic piece features five intertwined vocal lines which ascend chromatically (by half-steps), producing disorientation which seems to resolve but then recommences. Hassler seems to be emulating the deceptive effects of lying lips and deceitful tongues, alleviated by moments of resolution.

The final work on this recording is Hassler’s setting of Martin Luther’s nine-stanza German paraphrase/exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, Vater unser im Himmelreich. Each stanza of Luther’s hymn forms a separate movement, for a total of twenty-five minutes of complex polyphony, all based on a simple anonymous melody that Luther selected for use with his text.

Martin Luther once wrote of such music that it seems

to present a kind of divine dance so that even those of our day who have only a most limited amount of sentiment and emotion gain the impression that there exists nothing more wonderful and beautiful. Those who are not moved by this, are, indeed, unmusical and deserve to hear some dunghill poet or the music of swine.

I think Luther would have loved Hassler’s setting of his text and tune; he may even have been proud that a nice Lutheran boy from Bavaria could learn from the Italians new ways to capture an aural representation of that perpetual divine dance.

Performances of works
mentioned in this essay

Hassler, Mein G’muth ist mir verwirret

The Playfords

J. S. Bach, Four settings of the Passion Chorale in the St. Matthew Passion

Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe, conductor
[complete performance here]

Hassler, Missa Super dixit Maria

Ensemble Vocal Européen de la Chapelle Royale, Philippe Herreweghe, director

Hassler, Dixit Maria ad angelum

Jubilate Choir (Finland), Astrid Riska, conductor

Hassler, Ad Dominum cum tribularer

Ensemble Vocal Européen de la Chapelle Royale, Philippe Herreweghe, director

Hassler, Vater unser im Himmelreich (first stanza only)

Ensemble Vocal Européen de la Chapelle Royale, Philippe Herreweghe, director