Asking a beloved Apostle to change his text, just a bit

Asking a beloved Apostle to change his text, just a bit

Hymn #13 -- An Angel from on High

Text: Parley P. Pratt (1807-1857; LDS)
Music: John E. Tullidge (1806-1873; LDS)
Tune name: CUMORAH

This fun hymn reminds me of a humorous text message exchange we recently had in our family. My mother had a full knee replacement last week. When she arrived home from the hospital--my parents live about a block away from the Mount Timpanogos Temple--we all texted and wished her well. 

One of my brothers texted from New York and said, in his unique and facetious way, "May the Angel Moroni bless you and keep you!" Living in Moroni's shadow and being able to see him from their window, my mother responded, "He does watch over us!" 

Unfortunately, I don't think I've ever seen it selected in a Sacrament Meeting that I've attended. If this isn't a true blue Mormon hymn, I don't know what is. I think it's wonderful. 

Despite my enthusiasm, 2 things bug me about this hymn. One is less irksome than the other, but I have to mention them. More on this in a minute. 

Karen Davidson mentions in her book that the early members of the Church sang this text to different hymn tunes. But she doesn't mention which. Does anyone know? Please share if you do.

I had a look in the back of the hymnal to see which other tunes in the 1985 book could be substituted for the Tullidge tune. The options that stand out to me as 'really exciting' are: "Come, O Thou King of Kings," Hymn #59, "High on the Mountain Top," Hymn #5, and "Rejoice, the Lord is King," Hymn #66. 

This last option, "Rejoice, the Lord is King," one of my all time favorites, is the only other hymn that matches the meter exactly with the repeated final 2 lines. 6 6 6 6 8 8 8 8. 

One of the reasons I looked at these other options is because of the first of my 2 small gripes regarding this hymn. 

Take a look at line 3. The Parley P. Pratt hymn text emphasizes the first word strongly. "Lo!" And since Tullidge repeats these last 2 lines of text twice, we get the "Lo!" again in line 4. 

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The problem is, the "Lo!" comes as a pickup beat which places the unimportant word "in" on the big first downbeat of the new meter. This just bugs me to no end. Look at verse 2. "It shall." Now that is set correctly. The "It" is on the weak upbeat and the "shall," the strong word, is on the downbeat. 

The problem is, Pratt was not consistent with the strong syllables in his hymn text. This can put the composer in a pickle. Either he has to deal with getting the emPHAsis on the wrong syLLAble as he chose to do here, or, he has to find the first strong beat of text that lines up in all of the verses and place that beat as the downbeat, making everything before it a long-ish pickup. In this hymn, the first beat of this line where the strong beats match is on the "mo" of "Cu-mo-rah's." See how it lines up vertically with the "gain" of "a-gain" in verse 2, and the "of" in verse 3? Now, the "of" is obviously not a really strong word either, but it's in the strong beat spot. 

Given the challenge of setting Pratt's text, I think Tullidge probably made the right choice. But if I had been him, this would not have sat well with me. I would have sent a telegram to Elder Pratt.

"Hey, Elder Pratt...could we, like, um, maybe think about changing the 'Lo! in'? It's kind of messing me up 'cause you put a kinda weak beat where a strong beat should go. Whada ya think? I was thinkin' maybe we could change it to the word 'within.' That kinda works, don't ya think? I hope you don't take this the wrong way. I'm not questioning you or anything like that, it's just not jivin' with the rest of the beats in your excellent, beautiful, revelatory hymn text." 

WithIN CuMORrah's LONely HILL
A SAcred RECord LIES conCEALED.

Not a bad solution to my ears. But we can hardly call up Elder Pratt now and get permission for this alteration. Too bad.

Back to my point. I was saying that singing this hymn text to some of the other tunes I mentioned was really fun. And, it can take away the issue overemphasizing the word "in" on line 3. 

Take "High on the Mountain Top." This line of text falls on the 3rd line with the big leap up from low D to high C. Because of the repeated low syllables and the subsequent huge leap up, "in" is de-emphasized. 

Take "Come, O Thou King of Kings." This one covers the issue pretty well. Have a look at line 3 in this hymn. It starts with a similar emphasis on "in," but in the low register, and it's followed by a big rising scale to the upper register. This is a lovely way to deal with a text issue like this one. Works for me.

Now take a look at "Rejoice, the Lord is King." Because lines 3 and 4 of this hymn start with a downward leap in the spot where the "Lo! in" text would occur if it was set to this tune, it de-emphasizes the odd syllable placement as well. It adds a bit of an issue on line 2 with the opening words "Descending from the sky..." But we won't go down that path.

I guess the moral of the story for this first grievance of mine is to try and find a way, despite any inconsistencies in the text (especially when a long-deceased and much-loved Apostle writes it), to let the music cover any strange or irregular swapping of emphasized beats. 

Ok, let's chat about the music itself.

I really don't have much to say. I love the music except for 1 little bit, my 2nd gripe. And this is the lesser of the 2 gripes. I'm sure it's just a personal thing. But let me say a few things about what I love first.

The splitting up of the hymn text into 2 halves, each with its own meter, is so much fun. And it really makes sense when considering the structure of the text. The first 4 lines, the 6-syllable lines, are setting the stage, presenting the premise. But then the texts busts out with the angel's words. It's a new frame of mind and a new person's voice. So placing it in a new meter gives it it's own unique voice and character. And notice how the first 2 lines are in the rollicking 6/8 meter with it's "rolling along" feel. Then the declamation occurs in a strong, straight, powerful 4/4. No messing about. This is important. Great stuff! Love it!

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Ok, my 2nd gripe. It's the 4th to the last chord on the "-ord" of "record." I love the half-step rising motion in the alto voice. C-C#-D. But the quick jumping around on these 3 major chords just seems a bit to abrupt to me. C major, A major, D major. Boom, boom, boom.

If I had composed this music, I would have changed that A major chord to a C# fully diminished 7th chord. I would also change the tune just a tad. I'd go to a G on that chord in the soprano. Like this:

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Well, that's it for today. I'm really enjoying all the comments and how some of you are challenging my point of view. Keep it coming!  

Have a great Sunday!

Doug

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