Why "The Morning Breaks" Kinda Bugs Me
Hymn #1 -- The Morning Breaks
Text: Parley P. Pratt (1807-1857; LDS)
Music: George Careless (1839-1932; LDS)
Tune name: HUDSON
Before I dive into the bones of Hymn #1, I want to set the stage. I probably should have included this in my "Preamble" post yesterday.
When I'm composing a hymn, I have one goal in mind. A hymn should elicit emotion from the singer or congregation. Hymns are vehicles of gospel teaching. Gospel teaching, though it may start with the intellect, ultimately deals with the heart and the emotions and the ability to change those inner feelings and desires toward a more God-like life. Hymns are instruments of the Lord's Atonement and can bring that sacrifice to life in ways that words alone never can.
Them some big words. I know. But if I start with this lofty goal, I'm always better off. To help me reach this goal, I constantly have my radar on high alert for a few crucial elements.
1. Is the text strong? Is it coherent? Does it teach a specific doctrine? Does it tell a story (not always a traditional story)? Does it stick to its meter and rhyme? Does it have any spots that are jagged or out of joint?
2. Is the melody singable by a general congregation? I'm thinking about range, difficult leaps, odd intervals, bizarre phrasing, unhelpful voice leading. Does the melody lead me as a singer to a gratifying climax? Does my melody pass the "toddler test?" I play and sing the hymn with my little kids and see if it sticks in their heads. Kids are the perfect little critics. They'll tell you straight. And if they like it, it sticks in their heads and you hear them humming it to themselves later. That's a great sign!
3. Does the harmony support the melody in a satisfying and emotionally rewarding way? Or, is the composer (yes, sometimes I talk to myself in the 3rd person) trying to be too clever? If the harmony is unusual, is it unusual enough that it distracts from the desired emotion I'm trying to elicit? Can a typical congregation consume and understand this harmony with ease on a first listen, even if there are some surprises?
4. Does the hymn give off the vibe that all are welcome and included in the singing? Or is it a little over the heads of some or much of the congregation? Sometimes hymns can go a little far to the "challenging" side of the gauge and turn into choral motets rather than congregational hymns that can be enjoyed by all.
There's more, but these are some of the biggies. Do you see why I insist that hymn writing is difficult? As a composer, I want to keep my personal chemistry and voice intact. But not at the expense of the real purpose of the hymn. I want to write a great melody, but not at the expense of large parts of the congregation that can't sing or understand the tune. I want to write clever, delicious, intriguing harmony, but not at the expense of eliciting the right emotion. I want to do the text as much justice as I can and even when the planets align, and the heavens smile upon me, take the text to a new realm where, when welded together with my melody, it becomes an entirely new entity that can truly elevate the singer or listener.
THIS. IS. NOT. EASY.
But oh man, when you get it right, it's absolutely amazing!
I'm not trying to scare anyone away from trying to write a hymn. Don't get me wrong. In fact, it's often those who don't have as much experience or years of study as others who are able, out of some sheer awesomeness unknown to me, to write a hymn tune that we hoity-toity edumacated musicians are crazy jealous of.
Ok, enough throat clearing. Let's get to the hymn.
Hymn #1 -- "The Morning Breaks"
Text: Parley P. Pratt (1807-1857; LDS)
Music: George Careless (1839-1932; LDS)
"The Morning Breaks" is an excellent hymn text of the Restoration of the Gospel. It's powerful and strikes a deep chord in our LDS psyche. Any time an Apostle writes a hymn text, I pay attention. That doesn't mean they are all great. But it certainly peaks my interest.
In Karen Lynn Davidson's excellent book, "Our Latter-Day Hymns: The Stories and the Messages," which I'll refer to often, she tells the origin story of how and when the music was composed.
In 1864, George Careless was on his way to the USA from England. The captain of the ship he was on told Brother Careless that he admired the singing of the Mormon groups he had heard. He asked if he could have the manuscript of one of his hymns.
"I am very sorry, captain, but my music is all packed up. I haven't even a bit of music paper, or I would write one for you." (Davidson, pg. 29) The captain insisted, so Brother Careless pulled out some blank manuscript paper and wrote out the music of a new hymn calling it "Hudson" in honor of the boat on which they were sailing as well as in honor of the Hudson River where they were headed. He set his tune to the now popular--at least among the Saints-- the text of Elder Pratt, "The morning breaks, the shadows flee."
It makes sense that this is Hymn #1 in our Hymnal because it's the message of the opening of the heavens in the latter-days, the bursting forth of revelation and all that came with it. Excellent choice for Hymn #1. And the 1985 Hymnbook Committee included all five original Pratt verses. Choosing a verse to remove to fit the 4-verse standard seems blasphemous in this instance. The only other hymn that gets five verses in between the lines of music is "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day."
Ok, about the music itself. The tune is powerful and majestic. It accomplishes the goal of eliciting a powerful emotion around the topic of the Restoration. Mission accomplished.
However, there are a couple of things that bug me...
First and foremost is the 2nd full sentence of the hymn. The women rest for a few bars while the men take the tune and a countermelody. Then the men rest for a few bars while the women take over in a similar fashion.
To my way of thinking, this is not congregational. Congregational to me means "all inclusive." This topic will come up again with those Sacrament hymns that have similar passages. I think it weakens the hymn considerably. We've been busting out for 8 bars and then suddenly the energy drops into the basement and has to pick itself up off the pavement to get to the climax.
The other bit that bugs me is how high the melody is. I know it's hard to fit in a majestic tune with big leaps into a singable register, and we have many hymns that try their best to go no higher than a D. Sometimes we have some E-flats or Es. But come on, four high Es AND a high F? There's no way the average congregation can sing that.
Now the spot where the high F occurs, right before the end, it's a magnificent melodic climax. And I LOVE the 4 note melisma (that's a string of notes all on the same syllable instead of having one note for every syllable) is terrific both in its text painting ("rises") and how it whips the singers voices right up to the top of the melodosphere (yes, I just made up a word). It does all the right things a melody like this should do. But it's just too dang high.
I think the reason they had to set it in this key is because of the odd "men-alone" and "women-alone" passage. The basses have to get way down to a low G in a big loud hymn which is nearly impossible. If we took this hymn down even a half-step making the highest note a high E, this would take that low guttural bass note to a low F-sharp. That's just not gonna be heard in this kind of loud hymn.
Solution? Get rid of the vocal split. This is not a ward choir piece. This is a congregational hymn. By all means, when you go to create an arrangement for your ward choir, feel free to color the arrangement with "men-only" and "women-only" sections.
As for the harmony, it's appropriately strong and supports the majestic melody beautifully. The 2 or 3 Secondary Dominants (G-sharp in line 1, F-sharp in lines 2, 3 and 4) do their job well tonicizing the diatonic chords around them (For more about Secondary Dominants, click here).
If this hymn is going to stay in the new hymnal, which I think it should because the text is so central to who we are and what we profess, I believe it needs a re-casting. Let's drop it down to the key of B-flat major, re-voice some of the bass notes to make it more manageable, and let's fill in the holes in the middle section.
That's all for today. Let me know what you think in the comments below. And feel free to share on Social Media or email with others who you think might enjoy this post.
Have a good one!
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P.P.S. I've put together a Free Report called "9 Ingredients of Great Hymn Writing." It's a 10-page guide to help anyone at any level of musical ability and knowledge to work on their new hymn. You can download it for free at www.douglaspew.com/freehymnreport.