A 'great' hymn by my 4th great grandfather-in-law

A 'great' hymn by my 4th great grandfather-in-law

Hymn #5 -- High on the Mountain Top

Text: Joel H. Johnson (1802-1882; LDS)
Music: Ebenezer Beesley (1840-1906; LDS)
Tune Name: DESERET

The Text:

Our hymn for today is based closely, as are some of our most excellent hymns, on scripture. Joel Johnson's text is inspired by Isaiah 2:2-3. 

"An it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.

"And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem."

For any readers who are not LDS, we view this passage as being prophecy of the settling of the Salt Lake Valley, the building of the Salt Lake Temple (the House of God where we make covenants with Him), and the place where our General Conferences are held, and the word of the living prophets goes out to all the world. 

Joel Johnson wrote "nearly or quite one thousand spiritual hymns and sacred songs, now in a manuscript entitled, 'Zion's Songster, or the songs of Joel.'" (Stories of Latter-day Saint Hymns, p. 145.)

I was intrigued to learn that Johnson had written over 1,000 other hymn texts. But despite my efforts, I can't seem to find this text anywhere. I wondered if it would show up in the BYU Library collection. They usually have stuff like this. Unfortunately, I didn't find anything. If anyone can locate a copy of this text, I'd love to see it. It sounds like an excellent resource and could be used for some new hymn writing.

There is a book floating around out there called "Zion's Songsters." I found it on archive.org. But it was published in 1830 before Johnson joined the church. Someone named Thomas Mason compiled it. It does have many excellent hymn texts and could be used to write some new hymns. Here's the link if you'd like to check it out. 

https://archive.org/details/zionssongsterorc00maso

The Tune:

I grew up in a musical family, and one of the sets of cousins who lived near us in San Jose, CA were the Beesley family. We always loved talking about how my cousins were 4th great grandchildren of the hymn writer, and former Tabernacle Choir Conductor, Ebenezer Beesley. 

Later on, when I met my wife, and we were married, I learned that she had the same connection to Ebenezer. She is one of his 4th great granddaughters on her father's side. And you've probably heard of her father too. His name is Greg Hansen. He's an excellent LDS composer, arranger, producer and now hosts "The Sounds of Sunday" on KSL. 

The tune of this hymn is called DESERET, which is a word that comes from a story in the Book of Mormon. It means 'honey bee.' Brigham Young and the early settlers of the Salt Lake Valley used this unique word to name their new intermountain territory, the Territory of Deseret.

There are definite similarities between this hymn's tune and a tune by another great hymn composer, Lowell Mason ('Nearer, My God, to Thee'). Mason's hymn tune entitled STOW has some identical melodic phrases. The opening rising figure and the bit "Ye nations now look up;" Beesley took directly from Mason's hymn. 

Like Picasso and Stravinsky famously said, "amateurs borrow, professionals steal." And there are millions of examples of musical stealing throughout history. So, why not in a hymn too? Mason had assembled perhaps the most famous, and indeed the best selling hymnal of the early 19th century in America. His hymns were famous. Beesley, like many before and after him, found a couple bits that worked perfectly for his new anthem, lifted them right over and made them his own.

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The melody of the hymn clearly depicts the scaling up and down of the mountain. Line 1 head right up the foothills to the first of several overlooks on a high D. The 2nd 'stollen' Lowell Mason phrase is put to use perfectly with the C# to D on the words "look up." The end of Line 2 comes right back down to low D where the melody started. Our new plateau before the final ascent to the peak. 

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Now for my favorite bit, Line 3. This is lovely text painting. We get the scaling of the higher slopes in the melody, the massive leap of a 7th, from D up to C. And then an imitative response with a leap from B up to E and then the same C# to D resolution at the end of the line before reaching the peak, the hymns climax, the octave D's at the beginning of line 4.

What makes the scaling of melodic slopes even more fun are the contrapuntal switchbacks below. The basses and sopranos get us started, and the altos and tenors answer. Then the sopranos and tenors take us up a notch, and the altos and basses follow. And finally, the altos get a fun little melodic phrase. I really enjoy this kind of call and response writing and the layering it creates. 

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With one final switchback in the men's parts under the peaked octave D's, made extra craggy by the D#, we finally make our way to the one and only cadence on the 1 chord as if we're saying, "This is the place!" "We made it!"

Another favorite feature of this hymn is the bassline. It's so melodic in its own right. And it tells the story of climbing a mountain just as much as the melody. It swoops right down at the outset and rises all the way up to a high be before falling back to its starting note, D. Line 2 has a similar shape, up and then falling and climbing up to that same D. Then the basses get 2 big switchbacks. First, the end of line 3, G-A-low-A-D. Second, the response tot he octave peak of the ladies part, "On Zion's mount." 

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The harmony that the bass line creates also tells the story of the journey. As is the case with all hymns, or any piece of music using traditional harmony, we start at home with the 1 chord, the tonic. We grow up and get adventurous. We leave home and find a new destination, the 5-chord, the dominant, the polar opposite of the tonic. At last, we find our way back home to the tonic. Each of these stages of the journey is measured with mile markers or harmonic landmarks. Musical punctuation. In other words, cadences. A musical cadence is when the phrase pauses for breath before launching into the next stage of the journey.

In "High on the Mountain Top," there are 4 cadences. One at the end of each line. But notice, only one of these cadences pauses on the 1 chord. The final cadence. The other 3 are on the 5 chord, the dominant, that polar opposite place far away from home. It's as if the harmonic journey is matching the journey of the early pioneers. They start with tonic, but they are led again and again to a faraway place. A land of the 'dominant' where they search for new lodging. And not only do they keep landing on this far away 'dominant,' it's made strong in the 2nd and 3rd lines with the C# right before it as if they were cadencing in the key of D major. But wait, we're in the key of G. This isn't our home, is it? It's like they keep trying to make this new place home, but it's not quite right. Until finally, after many detours and switchbacks and slopes, they find their way to their new home. They get back to the tonic, they're not the same people they were before. The journey changed them.

Maybe I'm taking this a little too far. But I don't think so. Harmony and melody can be used very precisely to depict things like this. In fact, Richard Strauss, one of the most gifted composers who ever lived, knew of this descriptive potential. He said, "I want to be able to depict in music a glass of beer so accurately that every listener can tell whether it is Pilsner or a Kumbacher" (like saying 'Budweiser or Samuel Adams,' in modern American speech). And if you get to know his operas, you truly can hear exacting detail made possible by the clever use of harmony, melody, and orchestration.

But he wasn't the first. Even Bach, with laser detail, depicted many hundreds of precise scenes and moods and feelings in his church cantatas. One of my favorites is the knocking of the door, as said by Jesus, "I stand at the door and knock" in cantata BWV61, Mvt. 4 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y9hJhW7h5Bs).  Music can be as descriptive, and even more so, than any text or painting. To my ears, Beesley is using all his descriptive powers tied up in a 16-bar hymn to great effect and affect. 

Now, about that D# in the bass line right before the end. Aside from being part of a delicious melisma on the word "mount," yet another appropriate descriptive moment, we get a harmony we haven't yet heard in the hymnal to this point. Our first secondary leading-tone chord. In any key, the chord built on the 7th scale degree is called the "leading-tone chord." It' a diminished chord that fits in the key signature and resolves to the 1-chord with great gravity because the whole chord is built on Ti, the note that has the strongest tendency to return to Do. But in this case, Beesly uses that same "leading-tone" gravity aimed not at the tonic chord of G, but instead to the 6 chord, the E-minor chord. (Learn more about secondary leading-tone chords here, http://www.musictheoryteacher.com/pb/wp_7831b58a/wp_7831b58a.html.)

It all happens quickly and in passing, but it gives the last switchback an extra bit of dangerous slipperiness. "Whoops, I slipped and almost slid down that last climb to the peak." It gives it that extra little dissonant color before the real "landing home" cadence on the final G chord. It also creates a great little moment for all 4 voices to have an exciting part to play in the collective melisma. Each vocal part is interesting and is headed pale male for home.

This is an A+ hymn in my book. Well written all around and elicits the right emotion perfectly.

One more thing. This is our first example of a hymn that appears in 2 different versions in our hymnal. It's also Hymn #333 but voiced for men only. So I guess we won't actually have 341 days of hymn reviews because a few are doubled up. 

A word about the men's version:

Ok, what in the world is the deal with these bizarre C clefs in the men's hymns? In the entire history of music, I've never, ever seen a C clef used on a space except for in the LDS hymnal.

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Throughout all my study of the whole standard repertoire, the history of clef and score reading, the different uses of clefs for transposing instruments, I've never, EVER, seen a C clef used on a space. Sure, it's the most 'transposable' of the clefs and is used on different lines as Tenor Clef, Alto Clef, and even the rare and no longer used Soprano Clef. But on a space? And to be used as an octave transposing clef? This is SO, SO irregular. Bizarre. Frankly, ridiculous. Not to mention absolutely confusing for every average singer and piano player who ever gets a glance at them.

Here's what Wikipedia says about them: "Starting in the 18th-century treble clef has been used for transposing instruments that sound an octave lower, such as the guitar; it has also been used for the tenor voice. To avoid ambiguity, modified clefs are sometimes used, especially in the context of choral writing; of those shown, the C clef on the third space, easily confused with the tenor clef, is the rarest."

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The best way to score a men's line that should be transposed down an octave, as was the intention of the hymnbook committee here, is to use a Treble Clef with a little number "8" underneath it. 

"Okay, calm down, self. It's okay," said the overheated composer...

The men's version is set in a good key for men's voices. I wish we heard this version of they hymn more often as a special musical number by a group of men. It gives off a richness and extra strength in this setting. My only gripe is the low E-flat at the end. Maybe 1 or 2 guys can hit that in your ward. I'm sure it's there in case there is a bass that can hit it. But I think it should be notated as an optional note, either with parenthesis around it or in a smaller font to indicate that it's optional. 

That's all for today. Tomorow we'll have a look at how W.W. Phelps used a clever technique to come up with the text of Hymn #6, "Redeemer of Israel."

Have a good one!

Doug

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