Phelps's fantastic method for coming up with a new hymn text
Hymn #6 -- Redeemer of Israel
Text: William W. Phelps (1792-1872; LDS);
adapted from Joseph Swain (1761-1796)
Music: Freeman Lewis (1780-1859)
Tune Name: DULCIMER
I'm glad this hymn was included right at the front of the book. It makes our belief in Jesus clear. Perhaps including it even before "The Morning Breaks" and "High on the Mountain Top" would have made our Christian position even more evident. No matter.
This hymn reminds me of President Monson. Some members complained about his talks in General Conference, that they were always kind of the same. Pretty basic doctrinally. He focused on a few core topics in almost every talk. Some expressed boredom. I confess I remember thinking that as a teenager. But when he became the prophet, that all changed for me. I think a lot of my perspective changed because of some things going on in my life.
For example, the year I went to Poland to finish up my doctorate and get a post-doc at the Chopin University in Warsaw was a challenging year. The Fulbright Commission didn't offer us enough funds to make taking my wife and our 3 kids (at the time, now we have 5) realistic. So they moved in with my parents, and I went on my own. Being apart for over 8 months was extremely challenging. Then my wife got super sick with an autoimmune disease, and some wild things happened. I'll tell the full story some other time. I felt the Spirit urging me to listen to President Monson's conference talks as a way to find peace during the tumultuous times.
He became like a personal friend to me. I loved listening to him over and over. He doesn't veer from the core truths of the gospel for a reason. That's where we get the most strength. That's what this hymn reminds me of.
The harmony is very basic. Apart from a quick tonicizing of the 5 chord at the halfway point, "blessing we call," with the E7 chord, including G#s, the harmony is all 1 chords, 4 chords, and 5 chords. But it doesn't need anything else. It's a bold statement of core truth. A simple testimony-statement of the Savior.
Now, about the text itself.
W.W. Phelps based it on a well known English hymn text by Joseph Swain.
O thou in whose presence my soul takes delight,
On whom inafflictions I call,
My comfort by day and my song in the night,
My hope, my salvation, my all.
Where doest thou at noontide resort with thy sheep,
To feed on the pastures of love,
For, why in the valley of death should I weep,
Alone in the wilderness rove.
O why should I wander an alien from thee,
Or cry in the desert for bread,
My foes would rejoice when my sorrows they see,
And smile at the tears I have shed. . . .
He looks, and ten thousand of angels rejoice,
And myriads wait for his word,
He speaks, and eternity,fill'd with his voice,
Re-echoes the praise of her Lord.
You can see how Phelps took the basic idea of a line from the original and made it his own. I think this is a marvelous way to create a new hymn text. And he's not the only one to do this kind of thing. Many poets write "responses" to famous poems.
A while back I was commissioned to write a piece for the Miami University Men's Glee Club in Oxford, OH. I was hooked on Paul Laurence Dunbar poetry at the time. One of his beautiful hymn texts (he has many, he's a useful resource if you're looking for a hymn text) was titled "After Reading 'Lead, Kindly Light.'"
Lead gently, Lord, and slow,
For oh, my steps are weak,
And ever as I go,
Some soothing sentence speak;
That I may turn my face
Through doubt's obscurity
Toward thine abiding-place,
E'en tho' I cannot see.
For lo, the way is dark;
Through mist andcloud I grope,
Save for that fitful spark,
The little flame of hope.
Lead gently, Lord and slow,
For fear that I may fall;
I know not where to go
Unless I hear thy call.
My fainting soul doth yearn
For thy green hills afar;
So let they mercy burn--
My greater, guiding star!
If you'd like to hear the *excellent* Miami University Men's Glee Club sing my setting of this piece, click here to listen and follow along with the perusal score. (https://www.douglaspew.com/lead-gently-lord/)
Around the time I wrote this piece, my cantata and hymn-writing partner, Phyllis Wocher, and I were marveling at a couple of powerful sacred texts. The Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/A_prayer_of_St._Francis_of_Assissi) and the Prayer of St. Patrick. I asked her if she would write a response to both of these texts. She came back the next day with beautiful new poems that practically rolled right out of her pen.
Here is her gorgeous response to the St. Francis prayer.
As an instrument of Thy peace,
I wouldsow love that hate would cease.
I would pardon those who offend.
I would speak the truth as to defend.
I would show faith to cast outdoubt.
I would show hope to be devout.
I would show light so darkness flees.
I would share joy so grief would ease.
O God, help me put others first,
To share Thy word with those athirst.
To their comfort, I would attend,
To the lonely, I would befriend.
To the unloved, love, I would extend.
To Thy will, I willingly bend.
I receive only as I give.
Thy pardon comes as I forgive.
The loss ofself teaches us to live.
Oh God, help me to truly live.
We used this response for a Soprano Aria in our cantata "Sing Unto The Lord a New Song." You can have a listen by clicking the link below. Fast forward to the 12:55 mark to hear the aria. The church shown in the video is the church where I'm composer-in-residence. We have so much fun there!
Well, anyway. I wanted to share a few additional examples of writing responses to already established texts. You should try it out if you're feeling stuck.
Now, about the hymn tune.
It has been known by multiple different names; DULCIMER, BELOVED, and MEDITATION. Hymnals in other denominations often pair these other tunes with Joseph Swain's text.
The structure of the tune is similar to Hymn #4, "Truth Eternal." There are 4 phrases. Phrase #1 and Phrase #4 are not identical as they are in Hymn #4. But they have the same basic shape and function. Starting on Do, rising to Sol with a brief upper neighbor, La, and then falling back down to Do. Beautiful, simple, unambiguous declaration of the key.
Phrases #2 and #3 are paired together, and though also identical, they too have the same basic function. They bump the register up into the upper half of the congregation's vocal range hitting the high D multiple times in a beautiful praiseworthy way.
Phrase #3 has some particularly lovely text painting. The "shadow by day" starts up on the high D and descends with rapid motion on "pillar by night."
The strong point of Phrase #1 came on the word "only"--which seems appropriate doctrinally--not on the high note which often gets emphasis. The climax point is Phrase #4--actually, there are sort of 2 points of emphasis in this phrase--is the A on the word "King." The second emphasis coming right after with a return to Do and the leap up to Mi on the 2nd syllable of the word "Deliv'rer." This harkens back to the simple, basic, central harmonies and important melodic notes being emphasized in a similar way to President Monson's use of the fundamental doctrines over and over again to drive home the gospel through repetition accompanied by powerful individual feeling.
One perk of this hymn I haven't mentioned is that the altos are happy with their active accompaniment of the tune. It's much more fun to sing than the typical quasi-monotone alto parts.
Tomorrow we'll take a dive into repeated rhythms and how they can make or break a hymn.
See you then!
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