How a funeral dirge became a peppy prophet praiser

How a funeral dirge became a peppy prophet praiser 

Hymn #19 -- We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet

Text: William Fowler (1830-1865; LDS)
Music: Caroline Sheridan Norton (1808-1877)
Tune name: FOWLER

When Caroline Sheridan Norton composed both words and music to "The Officer's Funeral March," she surely had no idea it would be used years later as a jovial hymn of praise to latter-day prophets. She composed her dirge after learning of the death of her high ranking English officer friend who had died in the Crimean War. 

Here is the first verse of her dirge:

Hark to the shrill trumpet calling!
It pierces the soft summer air;
Tears from each comrade are falling,
The widow and
orphan are there.
The bayonets earthward are turning,
And the drum's muffled breath rolls around;
Yet he heeds not the voice of their mourning,
Nor wakes to the bugle sound.

So sad. Can you hear the music in your mind, slowed way down, reverent, solemn, with its heavily dotted dirge rhythm? 

When Mormon convert William Fowler was looking for a tune to use with his new hymn text praising latter-day prophets, he came across Norton's tune and decided it would be perfect. He made a few alterations, the main one being the tempo and mood. 

In his book "Stories of Latter-day Saint Hymns," George D. Pyper ruminates: "Could Mrs. Norton enter a Latter-day Saint chapel today she would be astonished to learn that the music which she dedicated to a fallen soldier of war is now frequently sung to a new song of praise in honor of a modern prophet of peace" (pg. 51).

At first, it seems an odd choice, to take a dirge and turn it into an often rambunctious and jolly anthem. But there's something that rings true with this decision. Our latter-day prophets give their lives to their service. When they are first called to be Apostles, they sign up for what amounts to a life sentence. Their calling ends with their death. They spend decades serving selflessly, watching their senior quorum members pass on one by one. Until the day when they become the Senior Apostle and Prophet of the church, there has always been someone more senior than them. But now it's their turn to lead the church. And they know their time is limited. 

Perhaps a dirge isn't so inappropriate after all? Isn't one of the reasons we revere the latter-day Apostles and Prophets so much because they have given the rest of their lives to the cause? 

Perhaps this is the magical element that makes this hymn the favorite that it is? The music is SO simple. Almost TOO simple to be allowed. From a musical standpoint alone, it's tough to put my finger on what exactly makes this such an LDS classic hymn. Perhaps it's the message between the lines, between the notes, the baked in dirge underneath the upbeat march to duty? 

George Pyper wondered about this phenomenon too: "It cannot be called the greatest hymn ever written by any of our authors. In fact, it does not compare in literary merit or poetic beauty with many of the other gems contained in our hymn books; but it has something different from our other hymns. It is exclusively a Latter-day Saint hymn; a Mormon heart-throb; a song of the Restoration" (pgs. 45-46).

Let's look at the music.

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The dotted dirge rhythm is prevalent throughout. If played and sung very slowly, it gives it that elegant, majestic feel. Or if played and sung at a quick tempo, that same dotted feel gives is the energetic, happy-go-lucky feeling. 

The tune is as basic as can be. It sticks to the basic tonic notes of the 1 chord stepping up and down with ease. It kind of reminds me of a pop song that has a really small vocal range. Thank of "Twist and Shout." There's like 3 notes in the whole melody. Ok, maybe 4. And then they add a 5th and 6th with the "Ahhhs." So, so, so basic. 

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There's nothing wrong with basic. Often it's the most basic tunes that catch one the quickest, especially when there's a lilt to the tune as there is here. By the time we get to the fermata at the end of the 2nd bar, we're so used to hearing the first 5 scale degrees over and over that a pause on the B, the 6th scale degree, is such a delight!

Then we get 2 phrases in a row that start with the robust leap up from Sol to Do. "We thank..." and "We feel..." Both of these would add a great sense of majesty to the slow dirge. They are an honorable "cry" to the heavens as the spirit of the deceased approaches the pearly gates. And in the faster tempo, they are transformed into an excited "shout" to the heavens as we demonstrate our willingness to follow the prophet wherever he goes. 

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The harmony is as basic as basic can be too. Just the 1 chord, the 4 chord, and the 5 chord. Those three magic chords that are responsible for millions of songs, all the way back into the Baroque, powdered wigs in the dance hall, up through to the Beatles, Beyonce and beyond!

That's about all there is to say about this hymn. Like George Pype said, it's a "Mormon heart-throb." 

Tune in tomorrow for one of my favorite short and often unsung hymns. 

Have a good one!

Doug

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