A U.S. Senator leads us in knocking on heaven's door [20/341]

A U.S. Senator leads us in knocking on heaven's door [20/341]

Hymn #20 -- God of Power, God of Right

Text: Wallace F. Bennet (1898-1993; LDS)
Music: Tracy Y. Cannon (1879-1961; LDS)
Tune name: ELSIE

Today's hymn text was written by former US Senator of Utah, Wallace F. Bennet (in office from 1951-74). Like yesterday's hymn, #19 - We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet, #20 is directed at God. It is a prayer, an entreaty, a petition to Him. Each line addresses God with a distinct title or characteristic followed by a request, "guide us..." "take us..." "let thy Spirit..."

Here's some insight into the creative process in the poet's own words: 

"The committee that put out the previous hymnbook [1948/1950] met in our home. Someone suggested a lack of hymns especially suitable for priesthood meetings. Intrigued, I wrote this one, which was accepted and then set to music by Tracy Y. Cannon, chairman of the committee.

"I worked at [this hymn] casually. However, one Sunday morning, I woke up with the feeling that I could sit down and write the whole text. There was no set of words clearly in my mind, but rather a string of ideas. Within an hour, the text of this hymn was written, and I struggled only over one word. 

"I am not prepared to go so far as to say this was inspiration, but certainly the hymn almost wrote itself, and I didn't struggle over it as I have done over many of the other things I have written." (Stories of Our Mormon Hymns, pg. 43).

The music is a fine example of a well-written hymn. It's too short for an opening hymn, but it's an excellent closing hymn. It's a benediction in and of itself summing up the feelings of wanting to keep with us the messages that have been taught as we leave the meeting and go back to our homes.

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The melody starts down at the bottom of the vocal register, as if from a personal, internal place of pondering. The prayer quickly begins to go up to heaven with strong leaps, as if depicting the referred to "God of power." It pauses on the high C, already an octave above where the tune began. As the opening statements of the prayer turn into the plea, the composer takes the melody one note higher to the D-flat. This is the 4th scale degree, and it has a particularly powerful downward tendency. It wants to go back down to C. 

Like the contrast found in the text of each verse--first addressing a mighty God and then pleading with him for blessing--the melody carries an equally contrasting feel. It starts with strong hammer blows, or "fist poundings" on heavens door for 2 bars filled with big leaps on the strong tonic notes. Then, in bars 3 and 4, starting from the highest point, a place where the voice can make a yearning sound very easily, we step down in a more lyrical fashion. We approach God with heavy knocks on heaven's door and then plead for help with a lyrical melody. Affective musical word painting. 

The second half of the tune also has the nice rise and fall as well as the same high note, the D-flat. But this time it doesn't resolve the way we expect it to resolve, to the C. That's because the B-flat minor chord on the word "Shape" is extended another beat to the word "them." So the melody leaps down to the B-flat to stay a part of the chord. Then it resolves to Do, the A-flat, and rounds itself off first with an enjoyable quick eighth-note figure, the La-Do on "thy," followed by Re-Re-Do. A strong melodic "A-men," even though the text does not say "Amen." The melody does it for us. 

The alto part begins powerfully with only tonic notes, aka, notes from the 1 chord. 1-1-3-3-5-5. Then it hangs out on or around 5, or E-flat for the next 4 bars. Most altos are rolling their eyes at this point, tired of singing the same note. But they get some nice movement in the end as a reward for their patience. 

The tenor part is pretty active and fun to sing, especially the last 2 bars. Very shapely. 

The bass part is the most fun to sing. It moves on almost every chord and does a great job of supporting the melody. 

Like the Vaughan Williams hymn we looked at a few days ago (#15), this hymn does not rely on chromaticism to keep our interest. There is only 1 added accidental, the D-natural in the alto at the end of the first line, turning the B-flat minor chord into a major chord tonicizing the 5 chord. Tracy Cannon uses creative "diatonic" (fitting the key signature) harmonies with lots of motion to keep us engaged and interested. 

Should this hymn stay in the new hymnal? I think it should. It's a powerful example "the song of the righteous" acting as a "prayer unto [God]." And it's a fine example to composers who are working on their own hymns, especially if their hymn is a short one like this one.

That's about all I have to say today. Tune in tomorrow for the first in a string of hymns about prophets.

Have a great Sunday!

Doug

P.S. Hit the subscribe button and sign up for notifications of each new blog post so you won't miss any. And thank you for all your comments. I love getting many different perspectives on these hymns.