How rhythmic displacement keeps the 'Spirit of God' interesting

How rhythmic displacement keeps the 'Spirit of God' interesting

Hymn #2 -- 'The Spirit of God'

Text: William W. Phelps (1792-1872; LDS)
Music: Anonymous (ca. 1844)
Tune name: ASSEMBLY

To "sing and shout with the armies of heaven." That's what this hymn allow us to do. And it's a classic. I would guess that no other hymn has brought the feelings of the Holy Spirit more powerfully to more important occasions than this one. The singing of this hymn accompanied every temple dedication since the first in 1836. 

There's no doubt that this is a hymn that's going to remain in our hymnal. And it should because it's a powerhouse. And it's powerful in ways that make us think of and feel the divine palpably. The bursting of the veil "o'er the earth," the "solemn assemblies" of heaven being called together, and "Jesus [descending] with his chariot of fire!"

When Emma Smith's published this hymn in the original hymnal, it was in text form only, as was every song in the book. Early members used popular songs for their hymn singing. "The Spirit of God" and Hymn #3, "Now Let Us Rejoice," were sung to the same melody. A tune called HOSANNA (Here's what this tune sounds like).

Immediately following the dedicatory prayer on the Kirtland temple, offered by Joseph Smith, the hymn "The Spirit of God" was sung to the tune HOSANNA. Many reported heavenly manifestations. Joseph Smith reported: 

"A noise was heard like the sound of a rushing mighty wind, which filled the Temple, and all the congregation simultaneously arose, being moved upon by an invisible power; many began to speak in tongues and prophesy; others saw glorious visions; and I beheld the Temple was filled with angels...The people of the neighborhood came running together (hearing an unusual sound within, and seeing a bright light like a pillar of fire resting upon the Temple), and were astonished at what was taking place." (Davidson, pgs. 30-31)

One more note about the text. If at some point you're feeling the need to read an almost over-the-top powerhouse of a text, take a gander at Doctrine and Covenants sections 109 and 110. Section 109 is the actual prayer that Joseph Smith received by revelation and gave as the dedicatory prayer of the Kirtland temple. Section 110 is a record of the special appearances of Elijah, Elias, Moses, and the Savior Himself a few days later, on April 3, 1836. Why do I bring this up? Because actual quotes from these sections find their way into this hymn. I think this is one of the reasons it's such a powerful hymn.

The tune we sing today to this text is called ASSEMBLY, and it was first published in 1844 in a small LDS hymnal. There's a lot of discrepancy as to the origins and authorship of this tune. It is labeled as 'Anonymous.'

And let's have a look at the tune. It's simple, straightforward, memorable, and contains a fantastic example of the use of repetition with rhythmic displacement. This rhythmic displacement keeps the melody from feeling finished until the very end, even though so much of the melody is based upon itself and is repetitive. I find it quite brilliant.

There are 4 melodic fragments I want to examine to make my point. Fragment A is the opening 9 notes. I've labeled them in Cardinal red, as my Polish Catholic composition teacher would say. 

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This opening gesture is strong right from the get-go with Sol rising to Do, following the step-wise arc up and coming back down. This phrase repeats itself at the beginning of the 2nd line of the poem, as is typical of many hymns. Phrases 1 and 2 are identical. So are fragments A1 and A2. So as a singer or listener, we have that opening 9-not phrase pretty ingrained in our ear. The unknown composer uses this 9-note phrase 1 more time leading up to the climax. But he/she does it in a faster, mostly eighth-note rhythm, which gives it an urgency and a rush to the climax point. We call this a form a "diminution" in music. When a theme is used again but sort of shrunken down in time with faster notes. 

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Fragment B first occurs at the beginning of the 2nd half of the opening phrase. It's an arpeggio that goes right up the tonic chord, the B-flat major chord. D-F-B-flat-D follow by a step down to C. Like fragment A, fragment B is repeated identically. The fun comes in the chorus when the composer uses this same strong leaping motion up the B-flat chord. But instead of starting it on the downbeat of the bar, it starts on beat 3. It's displaced by 2 beats. It sounds new because it's part of the new melody of the chorus, but new with a hint of something familiar. And the displacement allows the strong syllable of the word "armies" to land on the strongest beat, the downbeat, and on the tonic note, the B-flat, the key of the whole piece. Powerful melodic writing and an excellent re-use of previous materials in a fresh way.

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Fragment C is only 2 notes, and this is my favorite of the fragments we're examining. The first time we hear it is towards the end of the first full sentence right after fragment B. It's the climax of that phrase. It's a big, bold leap up a 6th, from G to the high E-flat, the highest note of the piece. At first glance it makes me think that we've hit the highest not of the piece too early. We're not even a fourth of the way in. Where can we possibly go from here? 

Notice one more thing about C1. Neither of the 2 notes gets any strong syllabic emphasis. The G comes at the end of the word "glory," and the high E-flat gets the weak syllable in the word "begins." The "-gins" of "begins" is really where the phrase has been aiming all this time, and C1 leads us right to it with a substantial muscular leap and a step down from Fa to Mi, possibly the most gravity-pulling resolution sound in music, beat out only by Ti to Do.

C gets repeated identically just like A and B were and has its real fun in the chorus. But this fragment, unlike A and B makes 2 more appearances. 

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C3 comes at the beginning of the 4th and final sentence of the piece. But this time it's on a G half-note (2 counts) and a high E-flat quarter-note (1 count). And both notes are emphasized strongly on beats 1 and 3, but on words that are not the strongest. They are sort of filler words, "them" and "in." 

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C4 is what the composer has been saving. C1 and C2 were essential to the climax of the 1st and 2nd sentences of the piece. C3 sets the stage for the final phrase and points to the pinnacle of the phrase, which turns out to be the climax of the whole piece. It happens right after A3, the fast version of the opening 9-note tune. It's back to the same rhythm as C1 and C2, but this time it happens ON beat 1 in what is the strongest syllable of the 2nd most important word in the song, "forever." The strongest word is the first "Amen." That's where the message and the tune have been aiming this whole time. And C4 is the key to that climactic moment.

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The final short fragment I want to look at is D. It's just 4 quick eighth-notes. And it happens twice. Both times it's the same exact 4 notes with no alteration. What's so important about these notes? To my ear, they act as the agent of change in the first 9-note fragment. They give fragment A permission to speed itself up as it turns into A3 and leads right into C4 and the climax at the first "Amen." 

There's nothing that impressive about the harmony in this piece. It's very standard. It's solid for sure, and the rising bass line at times adds to this strength, as does the combination of it's repeated notes in some bars followed by moving notes in other bars. What makes this hymn so strong is its melodic cohesiveness. It's repeating of itself but not in uninteresting ways. There's just enough change in each turn of phrase to keep it fresh and rewarding. A+ melodic development in a hymn as far as my ear is concerned.

That's all for today. Tune in tomorrow to read about why Hymn #3 makes me think more of a barn dance than a hymn. 

Take care,

Doug

P.S. To get daily blog updates, enter your info below. And if you're thinking about writing a hymn of your own, check out my Free Report, "9 Ingredients of Great Hymn Writing" by clicking this link. www.douglaspew.com/freehymnreport.