How to write a melodic prayer

How to write a melodic prayer

Hymn #24 -- God Bless Our Prophet Dear

Text: Bernard Snow (1822-1894; LDS); altered
Music: Harry A. Dean (1892-1987; LDS)
Tune name: EPHRAIM

How can a melody become a prayer? 

What makes one hymn's melody a "fight song" and another's an "offering"?

We started this discussion yesterday and will continue it today.

Originally, Hymn #24 was entitled "Our God, We Raise to Thee." It was sung to the tune UTAH, the tune currently used for Hymn #33, "Our Mountain Home So Dear." The 1985 hymnbook committee decided that the original text was a little too focused on "Utah" members of the Church. They took the text through a series of changes until arriving at the current version. For more specifics, see Karen Davidson's book, "Our Latter-day Hymns." 

As it stands now, Hymn #24 has almost the same exact sentiment as Hymn #23. It is a prayer asking God to bless the living prophet. It is sincere, loving, But it goes one step further.

After praying blessings on the prophet in verse 1, verse 2 asks blessings on the growth of the Church and the spreading of the eternal truths of the gospel. Verse 3 goes yet another step further asking that we can all "be one, Like Father and the Son." It's a beautiful prayer of unity and plea for help to avoid derision. I wish we spent more time on this topic, personally. But that's a discussion for another forum.

Now, in yesterday's analysis, we discussed a couple of strategies used to invoke a feeling of reverence. One of our readers added to my 2 strategies commenting that the opening rhythm also plays a part. And indeed it does. Rather than starting with a rhythmic pick-up beat, Hymn #23 begins right on the downbeat and with a long note, a half note. Hymn #24 begins in a similar fashion, though not with a half note, but with a gentle descending series of quarter notes followed by dotted quarter, eighth, quarter. And this begins a pattern. The pattern follows the meter of the text perfectly. And it's an interesting meter. We have 6 6 4, 6 6 4. And in each line, the most important word, the word the phrase is aiming at, is the 4th syllable.

God bless our PROPH-et dear; (6)
May health and COM-fort cheer (6)
His no-ble HEART. (4)

His words with FIRE im-press (6)
On souls that THOU wilt bless (6)
To chose in RIGH-teous-ness (6)
The bet-ter PART. (4)

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The melody does quite a lot to paint a picture of the feelings of this text. The first 2 bars follow the rhythmic pattern perfectly, but notice the direction. It starts a bit of mid-register and goes downward. As if blessings are coming down as we pray. Then in bars 3 and 4, after a leap up of an octave, making the prayer suddenly filled with yearning, we get a falling line again. More blessings are coming down from heaven. 

Bars 5 and 6 round out Phrase 1 by staying in that mid-register and pausing on a 5 chord. So we're only halfway through, the thought is not finished. We made it to our rest stop, now it's time to find home again, but how? will it stay rather standard harmonically and melodically, or will there be some interesting and building tension before we arrive safely at our final destination?

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Phrase 2, the rest of the hymn, follows the exact rhythmic pattern as Phrase 1, sticking to the meter of the text. But the direction of the tune is changing. Instead of drifting downward, like the dews of heaven falling up us as we pray, we're not getting a bit more emotional in our prayer. The important words in Phrase 2, the landing points of each mini-phrase are "fire," "Thou," "righ-" of "righteousness," and "part." 

Bars 6-7 and bars 8-9 are a sequence. Bars 6-7 start the upward pleading, as if our words are now shooting forth from our lips upwards to heaven. The 2nd half of the sequence is particularly filled with yearning because it's filled with a raised chromatic tone, the D-sharp. Bars 6-7 are built on an A-major chord followed by a D-major chord. Bars 8-9, the 2nd part of the sequence, are built on a B-major chord (a chord that doesn't belong to this key but that gives us the more energetic sense of yearning) resolving to an E-minor chord. Now the question is, will there be a 3rd iteration of the sequence. Usually, the 3rd time spins out of the pattern and goes its own way. 

Bars 11-12 both continue the thought process of the sequence AND spin out on its own. Part 1 of the sequence reaches a semi-high A. Part 2 of the sequence steps that up to a B. Our ear is now expecting this to continue going upward, but how far? Part 3 of the sequence, bars 11-12 continue the upward trajectory and complete the rest of the scale by rising to a high C# and then the high D, the climax of the hymn, followed by a gradual descent back down to home base, the D-major final chord.

Like Hymn #23, the composer uses many passing tones and inner motion over steady basslines to create the reverent feeling. The rhythm does this too, as mentioned above. The harmony helps along too. The first 2 bars are all basically a 1 chord with some motion over it. The next 2 bars settle first on the sub-dominant chord, the 4 chord, resolving back to the 1 chord. This is that "Amen" kind of sounds we discussed several hymns ago. It's also called a Plagal resolution. 4 chord going to 1 chord. So the first line be devoid of any dominant chords, or 5 chords, takes on the "shepherd-like" quality we've talked about before. 

Of course the 5 chord does appear and the first phrase ends on 5. The 5 then takes a more active role in the 2nd half by starting the sequence. Then the B-major chord adds to that energy being a chromatic chord, a 5 of the 2 chord. 

The return to the gentle spirit of the piece happens in the 3rd to last bar with the C-natural in the tenor. It's very quick, but that lowered 7th scale degree, again, as we discussed several posts ago, creates that strong pull towards the 4 chord. It's a device saved for the end of a piece to give it that special sense of nostalgia for home. So we hit the energetic climax on the "righ-" of "righteousness" and the very next chord changes the color of the phrase with the C-natural, lowered 7th, resolving as it should to the 4 chord. And then we get a little circle progression ensuring us that we are indeed arriving safely home, 2 chord - 5 chord - 1 chord. The end!

I think this is a great hymn all around. It achieves it's goal of being a prayer, of depicting both the feelings of blessings coming down and a plea going upwards. The text has a beautiful and important message. I will be very sad if this hymn is cut from the new hymnal. It deserves a place.

That's all for today! Last night I did 2 Hymn Critiques. Actually, they were both primary songs. It was fun to see the writing of some of you. I was able to offer what I feel were helpful comments that will get their excellent songs polished up just enough to be ready for submission and publication. 

I'd love to help more of you in this way. If you're writing a new hymn or primary song and would like another set of eyes, a helpful set, one that wants you to succeed, and one that has a lot of experience writing and critiquing this kind of writing, I'm your man. You can click this button and fill out a short application so I know a bit about you and your hymn. Then I'll have you send me your piece and I'll get to work. 

Happy writing!

Doug

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Commentary from "The Bench Warmer"

by Jason Gunnell, Organist

This hymn pairs so well with We Ever Pray for Thee. It is a wonderful pairing of text and tune. I would approach this hymn in much the same manner as the previous hymn. We have our second hymn in a row where the recommended tempo is a good tempo. I think I play it around 82 beats per minute. I would also approach this registrationally in a bit more reserved manner than #23. I think #23 is great hymn to really have a full soft sound, hence the 16’ stop on the last verse, but this one strikes me a bit more reserved. I’d use a full 8’ sound with a 4’ flute, and maybe add a 2’ flute on the last verse.

Registration Starting Point:
Great: Principal 8’, Flute 8’ (and maybe 4’)
Swell: Principal 8’, Flute 8’ (4’ maybe), Viola 8’
Pedal: Principal 16’, 8’, Bourdon 16’, Flute 8’
Sw/Gt, Sw/Ped

Possible Final Verse Additions:
Great:
Swell: Flute 2’ (?) or the Celeste and a 4’ coupler to the Great if you have one
Pedal: Bourdon 32’