Friday, 17 February 2012

Paul Simon nicked it from Bach who nicked it from Hans Leo Hassler


I’m not generally a fan of portentous popular music, especially when the subtext is the standard guff about how decent liberals can’t sleep about at night because of the wickedness of Nixon, Reagan, Dubya or any other Republican president. Nevertheless, “American Tune” from Paul Simon’s great There Goes Rhymin’ Simon LP was a stunner, mainly because of the haunting beauty of the melody.

It was several years before I discovered that the tune had been lifted from the most beautiful work of religious music I have ever heard, namely Bach’s St Matthew Passion (Bach used the melody in several works, including his Christmas Oratorio).


To be fair to Paul Simon, although Johann Sebastian didn’t get a credit on the 1973 album, the diminutive New Yorker never made any bones about half-inching the tune.

But it was only today I discovered that Bach himself lifted the melody from “Mein G’müt ist mir verwirret”, a song composed by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612), a German organist who spent some time studying composition in Venice. And it sounds as if JSB  pretty much “borrowed” the whole harmony arrangement:

To my ears, all three versions are, in any case, achingly beautiful.


  1. I don't know I found myself here but Paul Simon is one of my heroes so it is serendipity. I did know about the Bach connection but well done seeking out the Herr Hessler connection. A marvellous connection - greatness continues.
    Just by the way: Bookends is one of my favourite albums and one that I shall smuggle on to my desert island.

    1. Entirely agree about Paul Simon and "Bookends". The odd thing about Paul Simon, however, is that it's very hard to feel any affection for him - one's admiration is distinctly grudging. Strange, given how absolutely brilliant the little fellow was (techically is, I suppose).

  2. I concur. Paul Simon as a person or personality does not grab the imagination. His Graceland era was worthy and thoughtful and well-considered but at no point was I engaged in his argument. I recollect seeing the documentary of this period of his work and was left sadly unmoved. Quite brilliant music, however. A most curious situation; I suppose he just hasn't got that indefinable 'it'.