Posted by: rcottrill | October 25, 2010

Today in 1564 – Hans Hassler Born

Hans Leo Hassler followed in his father Isaac’s footsteps as a skilled church organist. In the sermon preached at his father’s funeral, the speaker said Isaac had “carefully brought up and trained his son, Hans Leo, in the fear of God, in the free arts, and especially in the praiseworthy art of music.” The son is also considered one of the best German composers of the time.

In 1601, Hans Leo Hassler published a secular love song entitled, My Heart is Distracted by a Gentle Maid. A decade later, the tune for this ballad was adopted for use with a German hymn. Another 30 years passed, and the tune was used for a beautiful hymn by Paul Gerhardt. To enhance the singing of Gerhardt’s hymn, Johann Sebastian Bach harmonized Hassler’s tune in 1729, and it became Passion Chorale, which we still use with the English translation of Gerhardt’s reverent text, O Sacred Head Now Wounded.

I note this rather complicated history to indicate that though the music came from a secular source, long ago, it has been delivered from that association for nearly 400 years. There is a myth abroad that many (or most) of our hymn tunes began is melodies used with “barroom songs.” But such is not the case. This is one of the few examples found in most of our hymn books of a hymn tune that originally began as the melody for a secular song. Whether it was ever sung in a bar, I don’t know. But it has entirely lost any such association today.

O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
O sacred Head, what glory, what bliss till now was Thine!
Yet, though despised and gory, I joy to call Thee mine.

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Saviour! ’Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favour, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

(2) Today in 1808 – Placide Cappeau Born
When he was only 8 years old, Placide Cappeau lost a hand in a fire arms accident. He went on to become a wine merchant in the town of Roquemaure, in France, and later mayor of the town. He wrote poetry for his own enjoyment, and it is Cappeau who gave us the original French version of the carol, O Holy Night (Cantique de Noel). You can hear the great Enrico Caruso sing it here.

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining;
It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!
O night, O holy night, O night divine!

Do you have some favourite carols or Christmas hymns? If so, I believe you’ll be blessed by this book. In Discovering the Songs of Christmas, I discuss the history and meaning of 63 songs, taking us on a journey that reveals the wonder of God’s love, and the reasons for Christ’s coming. (The book might make a great gift for someone too!) There are many fascinating stories. For instance, you’ll learn about a carol written while the author stood in line at a bus station, and another that became the first music ever played over the radio. Check the top of the sidebar for a link to order the book.


  1. I’m thrilled to find this site as I love the old hymns and saddened to see so many churches drop them from their services.
    I was born in the Congo of missionary parents and had the joy of seeing the words of hymns that my Dad was translating sung with enthusiasm by people coming out of paganism.
    I’m a retired missionary now writing from a rich source of experiences, presently setting up a blog and web page.

    • As to folks missing the old hymns, that has been my experience too. And the longer churches go without using them, the more hymnologically illiterate they become. Often, when I’m invited to speak at a church I request a closing hymn that relates to my message. But sometimes I’ll hear, “Our pianist doesn’t know that one, and our people don’t either” (when it’s a song found in almost every hymnal for decades).

      Regarding your setting up of a blog and a web page, good for you! I’ve had a web site (Wordwise Bible Studies) for years, but had little idea what a “blog” was until I started this one late last May. I read through Blogging for Dummies, and did a lot of underlining, and also got a lot of start-up help from the publisher that’s producing a book I’ve written. My son is very computer savy, and has been a great resource. He and his wife are missionaries in Mexico. All of that to say I wish you well, and it can be done!

  2. […] Today in 1856 – Adolphe Adam Died Adolphe Charles Adam was a classically trained French musician, who lived in Paris. He wrote over 50 operas and the music for 12 ballets. We know him in hymnody for one contribution only. He gave us the music for the French carol Cantique de Noel (O Holy Night). For the author of the words, see the second item under Today in 1564. […]

  3. One hymn historian postured that rather than hymns being sung in bars, what was once “Bar Form” or AAB turned into “It must have been sung in bars” by those who didn’t know any better.

    So, for a hymn like “A Mighty Fortress”

    A mighty fortress is our God,
    A bulwark never failing;

    Our helper He, amid the flood
    Of mortal ills prevailing:

    For still our ancient foe
    Doth seek to work us woe;
    His craft and power are great,
    And, armed with cruel hate,
    On earth is not his equal.

    It’s an interesting thought. I like it better than Luther borrowing a drinking song and bringing it to church!

    • I heard that idea recently for the first time. Thanks for the clear explanation of it. It does sound feasible. In any event, as far as I know, Luther only used a secular melody for his hymns once. And shortly after replaced the tune with one of his own.

  4. You might find this article interesting too. It also tackles the myth that Luther used bar tunes.

    • Thanks for the input. I’m sure other readers will be enlightened by the article as well.

  5. […] Wordwise Hymns The Cyber […]

  6. […] Wordwise Hymns (Placide Cappeau, Adolphe Adam) The Cyber […]


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