An Exquisite Beauty Sentenced to Death
Hymn #56 — “Softly Beams the Sacred Dawning”
Text: John Jaques (1827-1900; LDS)
Music: J. Spencer Cornwall *1888-1983; LDS)
Tune name: PRAYER OF GRATITUDE
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful little hymn. She was a special little hymn because she sang about the day when peace will cover the earth, a Millennial day when lambs and lions will lie down together.
Yet despite her beauty, her majesty, her special melody, her emotive harmony, she was cursed with a terrible curse that made it impossible for all but a few to hear her beautiful song.
And what was this terrible curse? She was published in a key that all but the bravest organ and piano playing knights of the latter-day round table would attempt to play.
So the poor beautiful little hymn sat quietly in her prison of 5 flats, looked over, passed by, never to be considered, doomed to be forgotten.
Ok, I’m being a little dramatic here, but hey, I’m a composer. Drama is my middle name…
Hymn #56 is truly a great beauty of a hymn. The tune is elegant, the harmony is rich, the melodic bass line is a joy to sing, and the message of the hymn text is gorgeous. We need this hymn to be known. It has such potential to bring great comfort and cheer to members of the church who should know it.
But most Ward Music Chair-persons, Ward Organists, Pianists, etc., are terrified by the key signature of 5 flats.
Now, there’s a whole discussion we could have about the colors of different keys. Some will disagree. But I hear a distinct color and texture in every key. And I’m not the only one. Have you ever noticed how many pieces about death in the classical repertoire are in D minor? Mozart’s Requiem, Faure’s Requiem, Bach’s Chacconne, and many, many more. It’s because D minor has a certain gravitas.
Keys have a color to them. D-flat major, the key of hymn #56 is a soft, velvety, peaceful, caressing key. There’s a reason Rachmaninoff placed his most famous variation in the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in D-flat major (click here to listen, you know this tune, it’s super famous). It has that special color of love and tenderness. If it had been changed just a half step up to D-major, the color would completely change. D major is bright and shiny, like a blinding reflection on sunny day.
When it comes to preparing music for a lay congregation, setting a hymn in a key that will terrify 99% of people who are asked to play the piano or organ, is a bad idea. Actually, it’s a death sentence. This hymn was doomed to the sealed portion of the hymnbook before it every had a chance to sing. So sad, really!
I went to the Church’s site and transposed the hymn down to C major. Now, look how inviting it is. It’s much less intimidating to the average ward pianist or organist. It does lose some of it’s velvety D-flat major quality. But if it had been published in this key, it would have had a much better chance of being known and loved by the Church membership at large.
Let’s look at some of the reasons why the music is so lovely. I could spend a long time on the text, but that’s more self evident. I’ll let you read it through and consider its beauty.
The melody of Hymn #56 has two lovely sequences. Remember those? It’s when a kernel of music is repeated multiple times, but each time it starts on a different note. The first sequence begins on the words “Of the great…” and there are three iterations of the melodic kernel.
The second sequence begins right after the first, but instead of stepping down, it steps up. This time we only hear the repetition twice, starting on the words “And to Saints…”
Now have a look at this bass line. The first line of the hymn is not the most exciting bass line, but starting on the text “And the Saints…” the bass line is as melodic as the tune. It’s delicious!
I sincerely hope that this hymn will not be lost when the new hymnal is published. But for it to have a chance in our currently Church environment with lay music people, it needs to be in a more manageable key. And if they continue to use the transposing software on the website, if a ward or choir wants to sing it in the original key, that will be easy to do.
That’s all for today. See you tomorrow!
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Commentary from “The Bench Warmer”
by Jason Gunnell, Organist
In my estimation, this is one of the more sublime tunes in our hymnal, written by J. Spencer Cornwall when he was 90 years old! It is sad that so many wonderful hymns are almost completely unknown to the vast majority of members and congregations. I am so glad they kept this hymn in D flat major rather than moving it to key perceived as more playable. Even in our current environment where all keys are normalized by equal temperament, D flat is a very nice, calm, subdued, key that is a perfect pairing for this splendid tune.
This tune settles in nicely around the upper range of the suggested tempo marking. I play this somewhere between 76-80 beats per minute. It is also suggested to feel this hymn in a slow, stately two, rather than in four. Conceiving this tune in two gives it a nice, gentle lilt and movement. Karen Davidson characterizes this hymn as ‘serene,’ and I find that an apt description that I would seek to communicate through my registration. I would use a nice 8’ foundation with 4’ flutes added (and a 4’ string if you have one), adding a 2’ flute on the final verse.
Registration Starting Point:
Great: Principal 8’, Flute 8’, String 8’
Swell: Principal 8’, Flute 8’, String 8’, Flute 4’, String 4’
Pedal: Principal 16’, 8’, Bourdon 16’, Flute 8’
Possible Final Verse Additions:
Great: Flute 4’
Swell: Flute 2’
Pedal: 32’ Flue