100th anniversary of the 1st Vision, what about the 200th?

100th anniversary of the 1st Vision, what about the 200th?

Hymn #18 -- The Voice of God Again Is Heard

Text and music: Evan Stephens (1854-1930; LDS)
Tune name: REVELATION

Warning! This post contains shameless self-promotion. But I'll get to that in a minute. First, let's take a look at this hymn, our 3rd so far by Evan Stephens. 

He wrote this hymn as a part of his cantata, The Vision, commissioned by the Church in 1920, to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the First Vision. 

"This hymn was part of the choir section of the 1950 hymnal. Two editorial changes in the music were intended to make it more inviting for congregational use. First, the time signature was changed to a more familiar 4/4 time. Second, the key of the hymn was transposed three notes lower so that the melody is now easier to read and sing." (Our Latter-day Hymns, Davidson, pg. 47)

I've gotta find this original piece. I see that a Vocal Score is available at the BYU Library. I'll have to make a little trip down this afternoon and check it out. I'm SUPER curious about projects like this. You'll see why in my plug below.

More revision, please?

Now, Evan Stephens wrote both the text and the music. And both are lovely.
However, in the process of making revisions as mentioned above, I wish they would have gone a few steps further.

In fact, I showed this hymn to Professor Kirchenbach, and he nearly had a heart attack. 

"Not one, not two, but sree parallel fifs!! I cannot... cannot... no vay... how could he do dis?!?!?"

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He was too agitated to continue his analysis. So I took over. And here are these 3 identical parallel fifths. As clear as day, right at the start of the 1st, 2nd, and 4th lines. The sound is covered up a tad by the common tone F in

each chord. But this is not okay. Bach would undoubtedly go bonkers, as did dear Professor Kirchenbank.

Here are 3 examples of how Bach or Kirchenbank or anyone else might avoid these parallels. It only takes a slight alteration. Just a little motion in one of the offending voices and all is well. Simple!

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When you sit down to play this hymn, you might notice that the opening 8 chords sound very similar to another hymn. Jump over to #135 and play the first 8 chords. They are nearly identical, even down to the blatant parallel 5th. The Evan Stephens version came first. I wonder if G. Homer Durham realized the similarity? He may have done it on purpose. Hey, "amateurs borrow, professionals steel," according to Stravinsky and Picasso. 

Biggest leap ever...?

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I like the melody of this hymn. It's strong. It feels equally matched to the bold Restoration text. The one spot that raises a flag is the ENORMOUS leap of a 9th, that's a full octave plus one more step, at the beginning of the 3rd line on the word "Rejoice" in the first verse and "We shout" in the second verse. 

Wow, Nelly! A 9th? Really? For a congregation? Pretty excessive. 

But then, the more I sing it, the more I love it! And it works so well with the text. "Rejoice" and "We shout" have built in them a leaping, bounding consonant on the second syllable; "-joice" and "shout." And then the alto goes on an extravagant eighth note journey to accompany the soaring leap. Gosh, it's a nice bit. But I can see why this hymn used to be in the "Choir" section of the 1950 hymnal. 

This same figure return (I'm so glad it does, it's so nice) right before the end. But it's recast in different harmonies. And instead of leaping from a low middle C all the way up to a high D, it starts at an F this time and leaps up only a 6th to reach the high D. Much more manageable by a congregation. And it's always an excellent strategy to reprise in some way the strongest melodic bits. It helps it to stick in the memory. 

Some fun deceptive secondary harmony

The harmony is mostly standard except for 2 spots of uniqueness. Lines 1, 2, and 3 all end by pausing on the 5 chord. They are each preceded by the 5 chord of the 5 chord, the G major chord. Sometimes it has a 7th on it, and even a 9th for extra color. But in the 3rd line, we get even more chromatic work before the end.

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On the word "for," towards the end of Line 3, Stephens throws in a C# for the tenors. That turns this chord into a dominant 7th chord on A, an A7 chord. Now, usually, when we have a dominant 7th chord that doesn't belong in the key we're in, it resolves there the new accidental tells us it should go. In this case, it's the C# we want to follow. And where does C# lead? It leads us to a D. And in this key, the chord on D is minor. It's the 6 chord. So the resolution should sound like a 5 chord going to a 1 chord in D minor. 

But instead of resolving the A7 chord to a D minor chord, Stephens pulls what we call a "deceptive" resolution on ous. Instead of resolving to D minor, he resolves to B-flat major. It's the little sneak attack you often get at the end of the song when you think the composer is finished. He gets to the dominant chord, and you hear it being pulled to the 1 chord. But he slips in a slightly different chord. One that doesn't resolve in a way that tells you, "this is the end." Instead, it tell you, "I'm almost there, I just have a little more to say." It's an excellent way to approach a 3rd end-of-the-line cadence on the 5 chord. He keeps it fresh by adding this extra harmonic interest.

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The second unique spot is the 3rd to last chord in the last line. It occurs on the "-pen-" of "dispensation." If you look at the bassline starting on this chord, you see G-C-F. Very standard. That's the uber-common 2-5-1 resolution. But our ear expects to hear over the 2-5-1 bassline a G-minor chord going to a C7 chord, ending on an F chord. Instead of producing the G-minor chord, Stephens places a regular F Major chord over the G in the bass. It's sort of a "new age" or "soft rock" chord. The more I play, the more it jumps out at me. It's a little "too" out of the ordinary for me. I think I would have softened this sound with some eighth-note motion in the alto and/or tenor voices. 

So, my verdict is, this is a lovely hymn. However, it needs a bit of alteration. And I'm not sure how congregational it is. I'm kind of on the fence. That big 9th that I really like has me thinking this should be a choir piece. But then I find myself hoping that a congregation could get the hang of it. But since it's been in the book for 33 years already and still hasn't caught on, at least to my knowledge, I wonder if it's time for this one to go. I'm not sure.

And now for the shameless self-promotion

When I read this detail in Karen Davidson's book, my inner composer beast reared his head. 

3 months ago I had met for the first time and had lunch with Dr. Craig Jessop. We hit it off immediately with an impassioned discussion about our mutual favorite composer, J.S. Bach. Any conversation that starts with a total "geek-out" about Bach is one I can't resist.

As we chatted, I told him all about my work with St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Cincinnati where I am composer-in-residence. One of my favorite things we do there is the presentation of Bach's Cantatas once a month (he wrote over 200 Church Cantatas. They are the most overlooked masterpieces in all of classical music). 

In 2012, I started writing my own Cantatas to go along with Bach's. My librettist, Phyllis Wocher and I, have written 4 cantatas to date and we are currently neck deep in our next Cantata (you can read and listen at this link here). Each of our cantatas includes at least 1 new hymn. One of the Cantatas has 3 new hymns. 

I brought along a copy of our most recent Cantata, The Good Shepherd, and gave it to Dr. Jessop. He was so kind to take the time to listen and write a snippet about the piece for me a few weeks later. Here's what he said.

“In Douglas Pew we have a fresh new voice in contemporary sacred music.    His craftsmanship in the art of composition is readily demonstrated in his outstanding cantata ;The Good Shepherd.’ In this cantata, we hear his superb work in the writing of hymns, solo arias, and choruses. His writing for voices and instruments is filled with sensitivity and beauty, always complementing the spirit of the text. We have much to look forward to in the future compositional output of this exciting new American composer.”
— Dr. Craig Jessop, Former Director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

During our lunch, Dr. Jessop encouraged me to consider that the 200th anniversary of the First Vision was right around the corner in the year 2020. He suggested that I write a large work, a Cantata, or even an Oratorio on the topic of the First Vision. I asked if this was something he and his choir up in Logan, UT could perform/premiere/commission. Unfortunately, he already has projects he's committed to for that year.

After our lunch, I couldn't stop thinking about how much I would enjoy writing a grand work for this special occasion. But who would commission it? Who would perform it? After a couple of weeks of thinking, I decided to pitch the idea to the Church. 

I wrote a letter to the office of the First Presidency. I was hesitant to do this. They have many, many more important things to do than give me the time of day. It was only a strong feeling I had in the temple about all this that gave me the final push to sending the letter. 

So, I sent it. A couple of weeks later I received a nice note from the Music Department at the Church Office Building. The managing director explained that my letter had been passed on to him. He thanked me for my idea and enthusiasm, but then explained that they had not received any instruction to work on creating a commemorative work for the 200th anniversary of the First Vision. Instead, they had been instructed to focus on the new hymnal.

It was worth a try. Why not, right?

So, I'm back to the drawing board. I'm not exactly sure why I feel like I need to pursue this project. But I can't seem to forget the idea.

If anybody out there is interested in collaborating, hey, let's chat. This is a big project. We'd need a large chorus, soloists, an orchestra. And all those things take money. Anyway....

Thanks for tuning in today. Stop by tomorrow as we take a look at an old favorite and probably the first hymn most young LDS piano students learn to play.

Have a good one!

Doug

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