The most "choral" hymn in the book

The most "choral" hymn in the book

Hymn #37 -- "The Wintry Day, Descending to Its Close"

Text: Orson F. Whitney (1855-1931; LDS)
Music: Edward P. Kimball (1882-1937; LDS)
Tune name: ALEX

This hymn is much more a "Motet" than a congregational hymn. 

Don't get me wrong, it's lovely, both the text and the music. But it's not written in a way that a congregation can have much success singing it. Orson F. Whitney, who was an Apostle, was a marvelous poet. I have a collection of his poetic works and they are wonderful!

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Kimball's music is also lovely (except for the big fat parallel 5th at the end of the 1st line). There's a pattern to this piece that's used effectively. Each line of the 1st half starts with a quarter rest followed by 3 quarter notes. These 3 quarters all have a "neighbor" sort of motion from the starting chord, down a half step, and back up to where it started. Then, the rest of the line holds one chord for 2 bars with lots of passing and neighbor motion over the pedal bass resolving in the last bar of the line.

This pattern continues in the 2nd half of the piece, but the downbeat quarter rest is replaced with a half note. This gives the lines a little more oomph, especially as they grow in importance, first to the high E in line 5, then the high F in line 6. The tune makes one last wintry descend to the B-diminished 7th chord in line 7 before returning to diatonic harmonies in line 8 and finding its way home. The harmony of the whole piece does a good job at taking us on a journey out into the unknown and returning us home at long last. 

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But this is a choral piece. There's too much harmonic uncertainty for a regular congregation. I know there are some congregations that can sing this hymn well, but I think they are few and far between. Then, there's the high F in the soprano and the high G in the tenor on the 2nd page. As a tenor, I love it. But again, save it for the choir. And the ward choir could make a lovely musical number of out this hymn, straight from the hymnal. Go for it. 

The high G in the tenor is not necessary. It can be re-voiced as I've shown here. But as the high F is a melody note, it's hard to argue with. But is there really a need for 5 part harmony on that high F? For a congregation? Hmm...

Well, I think I've said it enough. It's a lovely hymn all around. But it's not a hymn. It's a Motet for the choir to sing. So, I think it should not find its way into the new hymnal.

That's all for today. Kind of a short one.

Have a great day!

Doug

P.S. In case you missed yesterday's Live Hymn Critique, you can watch it in the Facebook Group. Just click the button below to access the group.

P.P.S. How do you know if your new hymn or primary song is finished? Have you carefully checked for errors? To help you in the polishing process, click the button below and download my Free Report: "The 'Is It Finished?' Checklist."

P.P.P.S. To download my complete harmonic analysis of this hymn, click the button below.


Commentary from "The Bench Warmer"

by Jason Gunnell, Organist

To me, this is one of the most sublime and beautiful hymns in our tradition. Karen Davidson alludes to the fact that this hymn may have enjoyed popularity and familiarity in a previous era, but due to the specific nature of the text and the difficult nature of the tune, I doubt that this hymn is much known today. It is worth taking a moment to read this text without singing or thinking the tune. It is sublime! I think a masterwork of prose and poetry. This evocative text by Orson F. Whitney highlights Elder Boyd K. Packer’s words about him, saying that he was a “gifted and inspired poet whose work is virtually unknown in the Church.” I think this hymn is tremendously beautiful! This hymn is beautifully and expressively sung by the BYU Signers on their We Sing of Christ CD (and you can find this track on youtube), and I couldn’t recommend more you finding it and giving it a listen. They do not sing an arrangement of it, simply singing this setting from the hymnal. It is sublime, even if they only sing three verses!

Karen Davidson states that “the ingratiating musical setting by Edward P. Kimball no doubt accounts for much of this hymn’s appeal.” I find the tune as beautiful and tender as the text, which explains why I love this hymn so much. Kimball named the tune “Alex” in honor of Alexander Schreiner. That warms my heart as well. I can’t imagine this being sung in meetings, as it would be very taxing on the congregational voice. The melody goes up to an F! That doesn’t bother me one bit, as I think it is good to stretch people a bit, but I am also a musician and a tenor, so my point-of-view is colored just a bit! This hymn is in two, and effort should be exerted to maintain this gentle pulse. The indicated tempo marking is spot on for this hymn, so I have no other recommendations there. I would be very gentle with my registration, supporting the singing with a full 8’ foundation, and trying to find some color somewhere. Maybe a string celeste (gasp! but not a flute celeste) or if you have a tremendously good, warm Hautbois (which I don’t know if such a thing exists on our cheap electronic organs…), seeking my best to find just a warm, beautiful sound.

Registration Starting Point:
Great: Principal 8’, Flute 8’, String 8’
Swell: Principal 8’, Flute 8’, String 8’ (Viola Celeste 8’ ?)
Pedal: Principal 16’, 8’, Bourdon 16’, Flute 8’
Sw/Gt, Sw/Ped

Possible Final Verse Additions:
Great:
Swell: Hautbois 8’?
Pedal: Bourdon 32’