The many lives of one immortal melody

Sometimes, very rarely, a good melody lives on beyond its original creation and creates a many-storied life of its own. But how long must a great tune live before we can call it immortal?

One of the really basic but ineffable questions about music is: What is it that makes a melody, even a very simple simple tune great? These great melodies have been created by famous composers, but also unsophisticated folk musicians. No one has yet cracked the code of the great melody and maybe that’s a good thing. Otherwise we’d be bombed with AI created pop tunes. (Yipes, maybe we already are!)

This is the story of just one of these immortal tunes.

Paul Simon said that he took the melody for his song “American Tune” from one of the chorales in Johann Sebastian Bach’s massive masterpiece, the St Matthew’s Passion (BWV 244).

But Bach didn’t write the tune, although he must have loved it because he uses the melody (with different  texts and harmonizations) no less than five times within the 2.5 hour course of the St. Matthew’s Passion. This 5-minute video recaps four of the five versions, each expressing a different text and with appropriately different harmonies and dynamics:

The last harmonization on the same tune in Matthew’s Passion is for the hymn “Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden” (When I must depart one day). It comes right after Jesus has died and so is appropriately the most harmonically poignant. Here it is in written out in 4 parts for those who can appreciate such:

But even those versions aren’t really too far from the acapella version of American Tune by the Starland Vocal Band (yes, of “Afternoon Delight” fame). “Acapella” is the term for unaccompanied vocal. Acapella literally means “as in chapel” so I guess there would have to be a similarity in sound also.

Yes, the Starland Vocal Band

But Bach himself didn’t compose the tune. The tune was already more than 100 years-old by the time he got to it. The collection of German hymns was one of the most important elements in the Lutheran church, and part of Bach’s job as Thomaskantor (Cantor at Thomas Church) in the early 18th century was to set these existing hymns into larger works and make musical elaborations of these familiar tunes.

By the time Bach got to the American Tune melody there were already 24 sacred text settings for the tune. Amazingly, although the church settings of this melody give it an air of lofty purity, it began life a century before Bach came upon it as a secular complaint about heartbreak composed by Hans Leo Hassler. Here’s the first verse of the early 17th century (try 1601).

Mein G’müth ist mir verwirret (I’m all mixed up), by Hans Leo Hassler

My mind’s confused within me,
made thus by a tender maiden.

I am utterly astray.
My heart hurts badly.

I have no rest day and night.
I ever lament.

I keep sighing and crying,
in sorrow almost despairing.

The boy’s got it pretty bad.

I come to all this by a back door. Even though I am a Bach fanboy, I haven’t until recently listened to the Matthew’s Passion completely in one sitting. It’s a massive work of complexity and soaring majesty. It uses split choirs and split orchestras. And at least 57 well-trained musicians. We know that from an accounting Bach presented to the elders of Thomas Church.

This past summer I finally made it to the Leipzig Bachfest. I’d never before been to Germany, never before to Europe. I decided I had to go before I died and however many years I had allotted to me, I had 70 less than what I started with.

So I was sitting in Thomaskirche where the nine foot statue of Bach stands guard outside, and where his earthly remains rest in a crypt beneath the floor. I was listening to the Matthew’s Passion complete in one sitting conducted by the 18th successor to Bach as Thomaskantor, Andreas Reize directing the Thomanerchor (Thomas School Boys Choir) which had been founded in the year 1212. The “trained musicians” were supplied by The Academy for Ancient Music Berlin. Cathedrals were designed to maximize acoustic effect, and the choir and musicians were upstairs in the loft so the music seemed to descend down to us from heaven.

At a certain point I heard the choir singing a familiar melody. Then I heard the melody again (set to different words). And then again. So clever, I thought, to interpose this melody and use it as a ritornello, a repeating element like the arches in the church architecture. But the melody I heard was familiar not from any of the foregoing uses of it. It was from Bach’s Chorale Prelude for organ, “Herzlich tut mich verlangen,” (how I long for a peaceful death). So this tune that began as a lament of unrequited love, was used to express all sorts of longing and pain, from crucifixion to a desire for peaceful death. Bach, in this purely instrumental chorale prelude presents the melody without his usual polyphonic and chromatic elaboration. It’s one of the few chorale preludes where he lets the melody reach out in haunting simplicity. Free from words, I’ll always hear this melody as this:

Herzlich tut mich verlangen, performed by Matthias Havinga on the pipe organ at St. Bavo’s Church, Haarlem, Netherlands

But can we actually call this an “immortal” melody? How long does a melody have to live before we can call it immortal? I’d say 400 years is a pretty decent start, in any case.

H. Doug Matsuoka
February, 2023
Alewa, Oahu, Hawaii

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