Skydiving with the Angel Moroni [15/341]

Skydiving with the Angel Moroni [15/341]

Hymn #15 -- I Saw a Mighty Angel Fly

Text: Anonymous (ca. 1840)
Music: English melody; arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Tune Name: FOREST GREEN

It's curious that this hymn text, so perfect for LDS congregations who believe that the Angel Moroni led the prophet, Joseph Smith, to find and translate the Gold Plates into the Book of Mormon, would be by an anonymous author. One would assume that an early church member wrote it, but apparently, there is no evidence to support those claims, according to Karen Davidson (Our Latter-Day Hymns, pg. 44).

The text is a wonderful adaptation of this passage from the book of Revelation: 

"And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people.

"Saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters." (Revelation 14:6-7)

Later, in the Doctrine and Covenants (a book of LDS scripture, for those not acquainted), it was revealed to Joseph Smith that the angel mentioned in this passage of Revelation had a specific purpose, to bear the gospel tidings for the latter-days, committing the "everlasting gospel" to modern prophets. (DC 133:36)

I'm sure to many of our Christian friends, and friends of other faiths or no religious persuasion, our belief in the story of the Angel Moroni is as crazy to their ears and minds as the idea of skydiving is to me. Nope. Never. Not gonna do it. People don't really jump out of airplanes for recreation. That's just not something any intelligent person would do...

Davidson further explains that the original text of this hymn was sung to a difficult tune by George Careless. It was not often sung because of its difficulty. The 1985 hymnbook committee decided to re-cast this excellent and perfectly LDS hymn text to a more familiar tune. They selected FOREST GREEN; an old English tune made popular by one of the greatest British composers ever to walk the earth, Ralph Vaughan Williams. 

VW spent many years researching English Folk Songs and was the editor of the English Hymnal. He wrote and adapted many hymns for the Church of England. We have 4 of them in our hymnal, #15, #62, #82, and #284. 

The challenge of setting the hymn text of Hymn #15 to the tune FOREST GREEN was that the hymn text, in its original form, has only 4 lines per stanza. But the tune FOREST GREEN is twice as long. 

If the original hymn text had an even number of stanzas, this would easily solve the problem. Welding 2 stanzas together into a double, 8 line stanza, 3 times over, would make for a perfect fit. 

Unfortunately, there are only 5 stanzas in the original text. This gives enough text for only 2.5 verses. So what to do for the remaining half verse? Have the congregation whistle? That could be fun. But the 1985 hymnbook committee decided to adapt the 5th stanza and stretch it out into 8 lines instead of 4. I wish they would have given some credit to an author of this new verse in the hymnal. But perhaps it was too much of a committee effort that no 1 person was responsible enough to be called the poet.

Here is the original followed by the expanded new text:

(original)
Fear God, and worship him who made
The heavens, earth, and sea.
Fear him on whom your sins were laid,
Who died to make you free.

(adaptation and expansion)
Fear God who made the water pure,
The heavens, sea, and land.
His judgment will be swift and sure;
The day is nigh at hand.
Then, all ye people, worship God;
Give glory to his name!
To spread these tidings far abroad
The holy angel came.

Ok, let's get into the music.

In typical folk song tradition, the tune is highly repetitive. But it's such a nice tune that we don't mind at all.

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It starts with a more than solid opening. A leap from Sol to Do and then 3 Do's in a row. C-F-F-F. Then hit heads right up the scale to the high Sol, high C. But it takes a folksy switchback to get there on the word "angel." The rhythm suddenly becomes twice as fast and draws a little curlicue on A-G-a-Bflat on its way up to C. Then the 2nd half of the phrase comes back down with emphasis on the 4th scale degree, Fa, in this case B-flat, before stepping down to F. We get another shortened curlicue on the word "he" bringing back the lilting quality established on the word "angel." That's so nice we want to hear it again. And we do. Exactly.

Line 4 also has the exact same melody. The only difference is the lengthened first note. The low C becomes a half note instead of a quarter note. VW uses that very effectively in the harmony. More about that in a second. Let's finish looking at the tune.

Since lines 1, 2 and 4 are identical, we expect something new and charming on line 3. And we get it. It starts with an equally bold tonic beginning going right up the tonic arpeggio, F-A-C. Then it takes the curlicue, doubles it in length, and creates a perfect little valley out of the scale. Down (C-Bflat-A-G-F), right back up to high C (F-G-A-Bflat-C), and then making the plunge back down to low C with a rounded out melodic shape going up and back down to low C. The 4ths line, and return to the original tune in line 1 is set up perfectly. It's a little gem of a folk tune.

Let's take a look at what Vaughan Williams does with the harmony.

The first chord of the piece has a distinctly British sound to it. It starts on an inverted 5 chord rather than the more typical root position 5 chord pickup. It's a C chord with E in the bass. When it resolves to the 1 chord on the first downbeat, the bass has only traveled a half-step, from Ti to Do. This gets the piece off to a light and lilting start. 

Then, look at the wonderful contrasting shape VW draws with his baseline. Absolutely beautiful writing. There's nothing too fancy with the harmony. But it's clear he made a real effort to create a contrasting shape in his bassline. The harmonies are colored in diatonically, meaning, there are no accidentals needed. VW shows us that you don't always need extra sharps or flats to make music interesting. You can use the key signature, the scales it provides, and create all kinds of interesting motion in the voices. 

Phrase 2 has identical harmony to Phrase 1. Phrase 4, as it did with the melody, is also identical, except for one little alteration at the end. Notice how the 2nd to the last measure in the ladies voices is identical to the same measure in Phrase 1 and Phrase 2. No changes whatsoever. But the men's parts have changed a bit. It's only slightly different. But different enough to help us feel the end has come for sure. 

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On the words "our joys" in the 2nd to last measure, VW throws in a quick D-minor chord on the 2nd half of the 2nd beat and then alters the chord on beat 3 to a C chord with a suspension on it. In Phrases 1 and 2, he had used an inverted G-minor chord on beat 3. The inerted G-minor chord uses the F in the alto line as the 7th of the chord. But in Phrase 4, because he has changed the chord to a C chord and left the ladies parts without any change, the F in the alto of the work "joys" doesn't belong to the chord. So, as we've done before, we ask ourselves the 3 cosmic questions. 

  1. Where did I come from? The F came from another F in the previous chord.
  2. Who am I? I'm an F that doesn't belong in the C chord. I've been suspended over from the last chord, kinda like I forgot to count and was still holding the same note when everyone else had changed chords.
  3. Where am I going? I'm realizing I forgot to move and stepping down to an E. 

This is a classic 4-3 suspension. We call 4-3 because the non-chord-tone, the F, is a 4th above the bass note and resolves to a 3rd above the bass note. This is the most common suspension sound. Our ears hear this kind of resolution all the time. It makes the cadence feel nice and final.

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We skipped Phrase 3. Again, VW uses all diatonic harmonies. No accidentals needed to make his music compelling. And he does another stellar job of creating beautiful contrary shapes between the more active melody of Phrase 3 and its bassline. 

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One last note about the harmony. Take a look at the last chord in line 3. It ends with the men on a low C and E. To make line 4 sound as familiar as line 1, VW needs to get the men back into the same starting position as the opening of the hymn. Lucky for him, all he has to do is step up from C and E to D and F and then again to D and G, and he's right back where he began. He uses the new half-note rhythm to cover his tracks. Or, perhaps he changed the rhythm himself to make this stepwise ascent more rewarding. I'm not sure. Either way, it's expertly done.

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What a stunning 20th century model of fantastic voice leading. There are no illegal parallel 5th or 8vs anywhere. He's perfectly within any counterpoint teachers strict rules. And he's able to keep the hymn fresh, interesting, and engaging using nothing but diatonic harmonies. There's not an accidental in site. Wonderful!

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The only little, tiny, itty, bitty, minuscule thing that bugs me in this hymn is the text setting at the beginning of line 3. "Truth is." We have the strong word on the weak beat and the weak word on the strong beat. Grr. Maybe since the text is anonymous, it's okay to make a simple tweak? How about the word "behold?" That could work. There are probably other good options. 

Oh well. That's all for today. Come back tomorrow for another Ebenezer Beeley hymn. Not his greatest effort. But we'll get into that tomorrow.

All the best!

Doug

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