How 'mind' and 'heart' combine to make a great hymn
Hymn #14 -- Sweet Is the Peace the Gospel Brings
Text: Mary Ann Morton (1826-1897; LDS)
Music: Alfred M Durham (1872-1957; LDS)
Tune name: CACHE
I think this is an excellent hymn from top to bottom. Several musical moments make it extraordinary. But perhaps my favorite element is the text and what it teaches.
As Karen Davidson says in her excellent book: "Latter-day Saints place great worth on the ideas expressed in this hymn text, and it fits naturally into our hymnal and into our thoughts. Not all Christian denominations would be comfortable with this hymn, however, because it places such a high value on reason; in fact, verse three equates gospel truth with reason. Human thought and effort are given a major role in the process of salvation." (Our Latter-Day Hymns, pg. 43)
Yes! Reason. Intellect. Thinking. It's not all about feeling. Doctrine and Covenants 8:2, "Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart."
Ah, the Holy Ghost doesn't just work with us in our hearts. It works in our minds too. I love that the Gospel of Jesus Christ challenges my intellect. It's not just about "the feels." We need to understand the doctrines. Isn't this why they recently changed the curriculum for seminary from Scripture Mastery to Doctrinal Mastery? We need to understand the doctrines of the gospel, how they fit together, how they work in our everyday life, how the elements of the Plan of Salvation work together to create the Great Plan of Happiness. Why have Sunday School if it's all about "the feels?" Or education week. Or our own individual scripture study?
This concept goes hand in hand with why I've decided to carry out this big daily project of hymn reviews. Hymn writing and Primary Songwriting, and any kind of writing for that matter is not just about intuition alone. There's craft involved. Technical, mechanical, scientific, methodological. Of course, it's more than all this. Its purpose is to uplift, inspire, convert, and bring us closer to God. It's no different from the creation of a beautiful rose bush. The desired effect is aesthetic (to be concerned with beauty, or the appreciation of beauty). The rose bush's purpose is to provide beauty. But when you dig deeper into the atomic levels, there are all kinds of precise, scientific building blocks. It's a marriage of science and art.
A hymn is no different. Take the music of Bach. Has any composer praised God with more majesty? With more emotion? With more art? Not to my knowledge. But Bach was highly technical in his writing. Did anyone ever best Bach at the writing of a fugue? What about cannons? What about variations? Bach's view was that the more technically perfect his music was, the greater it could praise God and His perfection. Bach's intent was to glorify God to the fullest. Not to show off his prowess. Not to be elitist or condescending. But who wouldn't feel a little condescended upon when showing him their music? I can hardly imagine. Just having an original piece of mine on the same program as a work by Bach is to feel the glare of the '5th Evangelist', the high master of our art form.
Pardon me as I climb up on my soapbox.
Over the past couple of days, several people have been calling me out a bit as being elitist in my opinions, or condescending. My intention, like Bach, is to glorify God. And to take that one step further, I want to help other hymn writers to glorify God to the best of their ability too. This takes a 2 sided effort. Our hearts have to be in the right place. But so do the mechanics of our artform. A painter doesn't just paint using her feelings. There is technique involved, heaps of it. A dancer doesn't just dance her feelings. There is technique involved, years of mastering steps and movements. The same goes for hymn writing. And if you feel offended by my discussion about technique, well, I'm sorry. But these things need to be discussed. So many people have a great hymn in them. I truly believe that. To get it out, they need to prime the pump of their heart and soul at the same time that they sharpen their musical tools and techniques. That's just how these things work.
And one last thing. Why on earth would I go to such lengths to write a daily blog averaging about 1,200 words each day? Some posts have been over 2,300 words. This post is over 1,800 words. I've set up a lot of work for myself. This thing will be way over 400,000 words by the time I'm finished. Would I go to so much trouble only to demonstrate my supposed elitism? Would I do it just to be a snarky fault finder who desires to spread a spirit of questioning the establishment?
I can think of easier and much less time-consuming ways to accomplish those ends. Instead, I'm doing all this work, and offering it for FREE (not a small point considering I charge $100 per hour for composition lessons), out of a desire to help my fellow LDS musicians as they do their best to write a new Hymn or Primary Song. I genuinely want to be helpful.
Ok, enough soapboxing.
Now, it's true, the gospel brings tremendous and sweet peace, as does the hymn we're examining today. It does so with an excellent technique which enhances the feeling the hymn text wants to portray. Let's zoom in and look at some detail.
The melody begins in a somewhat 'yearning' register of the voice. It's in the higher area of the congregation's range, but not too high. And, it starts on the 3rd of the 1 chord instead of the root of the 1 chord giving it that momentary sensation of internal yearning that the gospel fills so perfectly. The tune sweeps up gently to the high D and remains in the same register for the rest of the first line. The tune travels only within 4 notes. It spans from A up through high D. So when the 2nd line arrives, we naturally expect a little more variety and shape. An answering 'peace-giving' return to home after our "seeking minds" have reached out heavenward.
We are not disappointed. After pausing on the 5 chord and the melody note A, the 2nd scale degree in this key, we swoop down to the lower D to G, Sol to D interval. This is typically a sort of 'power statement' in a melody. Think of "High On the Mountain Top." It starts with a bang. Sol-Do! So the 2nd half of Hymn #14's melody does the same. And it makes sense with the text. We've been feeling and yearning and considering the peace we're searching for in the first line. Then in the second line, we receive "light refulgent" on the wings of truth to "clear the human view." The tune begins with that strong truth-giving Sol-Do, then swoops up "on its wings" to a double high D and steps down to clarify our "human view" by a more than clear return to home base. We get no less than 3 Do's in the last 4 chords. G-G-A-G. Pretty "clear" where we've landed.
The accompanying harmony provides color and storytelling to fit the text and tune. In the first line, we get the F-natural in the bass leading us to a C major chord with E in the bass. This is that subdominant chord we talked about a few posts ago. This creates a welcoming, pastoral feel. The 'peace' feeling we long for.
A few chords later, the C# in the also turns the A chord that was supposed to be minor into a major chord, tonicizing the D major chord, the 5 chord. It nails home the "truth" of the harmony pausing on D, just as the text nails down the "truth" discussed on the 5 chord at the end of line 1.
As the melody in the 2nd line begins with a power statement, so does the harmony. It starts with Fa-Mi, the strongest downward gravitational move, followed by a leap down to the low G. This is then followed by another powerful leap up to D, then up to F#-G, the strongest and most irresistible gravitational pull upward. All with 6 notes depicting the pure truth and refulgent light of gospel truth.
Durham comes close to committing the Cardinal Sin of parallel 5ths on the word "refulgent." The soprano leaps from A up to C while the bass leaps up from D to F#. A 5th to a 5th in the same motion. However, since the first 5th is perfect (D-a, 7 half steps = a perfect 5th) and the next 5th is diminished (F# to C, 6 half steps = a diminished 5th), there is no error at all. This is perfectly acceptable.
2 last notes about the harmony. Have a look at the alto line on the words "on its wings It clears." This is the climax moment in the melody with the high double D's. But the alto takes a delicious descending chromatic trajectory giving the harmony the sense of soaring on those wings of truth. And the soaring lands on the 1 chord finding it's home. But it's not the final 1 chord because it has the wrong note in the bass. It has the D instead of the G which to our ears says, "ok, I'm ready to cadence, my landing gear is out, ready for impact on the runway."
And as the melody gives the unmistakable landing beacon, the G-G-A-G, so too the harmony gives off the unequivocal sound of home with a perfect Circle Progression. The last 4 chords go right around the Circle of 5th to find their way home. There is no truer musical navigation to home that a Circle Progression. 6 chord, 2 chord with a 7th, 5 chord with a 7th, 1 chord. Talk about the fog lifting as truth "clears the human view."
To my ears, there's not 1 unsatisfactory element in this hymn. The melody and harmony do their storytelling beautifully. I only wish that we would take the time to sing more of the extra verses. They are elegant and continue the same message as the 3 main verses with a picturesque grace.
That's all for today. Tomorrow we'll go skydiving with the Angel Moroni. Stay tuned.
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