Out of the Shadows

Friday, 24 April 2020

An intriguing combination: in a new video the New York-based ensemble The Knights combine Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 with Paul Simon's American Song



At first sight the music of Johan Sebastian Bach and of Paul Simon would not seem to have a great deal in common, except that in his American Song Simon used the same Lutheran chorale that Bach repeatedly used (in the St Matthew Passion and others) which we know as the English hymn O Sacred Head Sore Wounded

Colin Jacobsen, co-artistic director of the New York-based ensemble The Knights, took advantage of this in his intriguing version of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 where for the second movement (just a pair of chords in Bach's original which were probably the basis for improvisation) Jacobsen has placed his own arrangement of Simon's American Song, taking advantage of the fact that a violinist in the ensemble, Christina Courtin, is a singer/songwriter herself and so able to step out of the ensemble and sing the vocal line in the Simon song, before returning to play violin in the final movement.

The Lutheran chorale started off its life as a medieval Latin hymn Salve mundi salutare (attributed to the poet Arnulf of Leuven who died in 1250), the words were translated into German in the 17th century by the Lutheran hymnist Paul Gerhardt to become the hymn "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden." The melody was written by Hans Leo Hassler around 1600 for a secular love song, which was then used as the basis for Johann Cruger's setting of Gerhardt's text. Bach clearly fell in love with the melody, for he used it in a number of settings including his St. Matthew's Passion, the Christmas Oratorio and other cantatas. Simon sensed the power of the melody to console; its sense of resignation mixed with hope.

See what you think to the combination in the video above, or on YouTube.

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