How A Latter-day Prophet Ruined This Hymn For Me

How A Latter-day Prophet Ruined This Hymn For Me

Hymn #80 — “God of Our Fathers, Known of Old”

Text: Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
Music: Leroy J. Robertson (1896-1971; LDS)
Tune name: ALICE

Usually music speaks more powerfully than words… at least it does to me.

But not this time. This one’s all turned around and backwards.

I blame President Hinckley….

You know how every generation has what seems like “their” prophet?

I hate to say “favorite” prophet, because we love and revere all of them…

Yet there are times of life, especially coming into adulthood or early parenthood when lots of BIG life decisions are made, that Church members seem to grasp onto the teachings of the prophet during that time in particular.

For my parents, it was Spencer W. Kimball.

For my grandparents, it was David O. McKay.

For my wife and I, it was Gordon B. Hinckley.

He was sustained as President of the Church when I was a sophomore in high school. He was there when I started at Ricks College in 1998. He signed my mission papers. He was there when we got married, when we had our first 2 children. He was sort of like my boss when I taught for a couple years at BYU-Idaho. And he passed away during my first semester of grad school.

I’ve loved all the prophets in my lifetime and have stories about how each of them impacted my life for the better. But there was something extra special for me about President Hinckley.

I loved his “get to work” attitude. I loved his eloquent way of using language. I loved how he’d try so hard not to get emotional… how he’d cough to try and clear away the cracking in his voice… how he couldn’t resist using his cane as a sword a knighting President Eyring… how the tone of his voice always had a deep seriousness and a charitable love in it.

Some of his talks I can still quote nearly verbatim, I’ve listened to them so many time. Especially during the 2 year stretch of my mission.

One of those talks, the closing 5 minute “‘till we meet again” farewell was particularly moving. I was 1 year into my mission in northern Chile. It was the October 2000 General Conference.

And this was an incredible conference. This is the conference when Elder Oaks gave his famous talk “The Challenge To Become.” Elder Maxwell gave one of my favorites of all time, “The Tugs and Pulls of the World.” And Elder Holland gave his wonderful “Sanctify Yourselves” talk.

As a missionary, it was like a weekend at Disney World.

President Hinckley got up to close the meeting. He didn’t have any kind of opening remark. He just stood there and quoted the 2nd verse of Hymn #80

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The captains and the kings depart.
Still stands thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget, lest we forget.

Just listen to him say. I can’t do it justice. It’s the first 30 seconds of this clip.

Oh man, that voice. It brings it all back. I can see myself in the Relief Society room of the stake center in Copiapo, Chile watching the English broadcast with the rest of the missionaries in our zone.

I had no idea he was quoting a hymn. I was simply bowled over with how perfectly the words, and the feeling in his voice described the closing of what for me was a monumental conference.

Usually a great text like this is enhanced by a musical setting. Especially by a great composer like Leroy Robertson.

But in this case, the music pales in comparison to President Hinckley’s delivery.

I’m sure it’s just my perception. But I can’t escape it. I’ve never really enjoyed this hymn. Probably for this reason.

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And the 2nd verse, the one he quotes, it’s all messed up musically with the word “The” not only in the first bar, but again as the next phrase starts in the 3rd bar. Yuck!

You’ll see below that Jason disagrees with me. That’s fine.

In my humble (but accurate) opinion, some tinkering with the regular flow of a hymn meter is fine. But there’s a line. And this crosses it for me.

Well, I won’t beat a dead horse. You decide for yourself. Does it really seem like natural language to say or sing “THE tumult and the shouting dies. THE captains and the kings depart.”

That’s certainly not how President Hinckley says it…

I do like the calm feeling in this hymn. The text is a prayer, so it’s suitable to be in the low, quiet register for a time. I like that. It doesn’t ever get higher than a C.

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The tune is not particularly inspiring to me. The harmony is nice. My favorite part is at the end of line 3 through the first bar of line 4. I really like the little journey he takes us on harmonically. G major, A major, B major, F# major, B minor, E minor, A minor. Then ending with a quick C major before the long 5 chord and final 1 chord.

Though, the second to last bar, I don’t really understand that bit. Why the long wait? I guess he’s trying to depict the “forget” part of the phrase? I’m not sure. But it doesn’t add anything to the hymn. It detracts.

That’s all for today. Tune in tomorrow for one of the best hymns written in the last 40 years.

Doug

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Commentary from “The Bench Warmer”

by Jason Gunnell, Organist

Leroy Robertson is one of the preeminent composers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His arrangement of Come, Come, Ye Saints is my favorite of that hymn and he has written many other works and hymns that I think are fantastic!

The text is very intriguing from Rudyard Kipling (he of Jungle Book fame). The poem is titled Recessional, and three of the five stanzas are used in our hymnal. It is a very thought-provoking text in my estimation, and I am not bothered by the stress irregularities that Doug has talked about with previous hymns. Nor do I find great fault in the textual settings of previous hymns due to stress placement. I find the artful nature of many hymn texts to be of greater value than ensuring proper stressing in each and every verse. The same stress structure actually becomes pedantic to me after awhile. I find great value in reading the text aloud without the meter and trying to convey the message and cadence of the text, rather than falling into trite repetition based on stress.

Part of the great art of the hymn is a beautiful text coupled with a wonderful tune! And beautiful texts to me often don’t have repeating stress patterns (but also don’t break too much outside of a good pattern...I did work with setting a text that was too irregular and it proved to be quite difficult, as the text for each verse never really settled into a tune because of the irregularities in the text, so it is important to have some discipline [insert smiley face here]). I digress (and ramble)…

With an intriguing text and a great composer, I would think I like this hymn more than I do. The majority of the tune lies lower in the range and doesn’t venture very high up. It is a rather somber tune as well, more somber than stately or dignified. However I think this critique is more opinion than a judgement on quality. I think this is a hymn of great quality!

I think envisioning the pulse of this hymn in two helps to encourage a more stately and dignified playing of the tune. I like to think of the slow and steady swinging of the pendulum of a grandfather clock when thinking of hymns in a stately two. The tune seems to be most pleasant at around half note equal to 48-50 (quarter note equal to 86-100). It gives the tune a nice inevitability and gentle forward pulse. I would be a bit more austere in my registration, perhaps not using the mixture in a principal chorus, but employing soft chorus reeds and manual 16’ stops.

Registration Starting Point:
Great: Principal 8’, 4’, Flute 8’, String 8’
Swell: Principal 8’, 4’, Flute 8’ 2’,, String 8’, Hautbois 8’
Pedal: Principal 16’, 8’, 4’, Bourdon 16’, Flute 8’, Bassoon 16’
Sw/Gt, Sw/Ped

Possible Final Verse Additions:
Great: Bourdon 16’, (if the mixture is especially low-pitched or not piercing, I may give it a bit of consideration)
Swell: Principal 2’, Bassoon 16’
Pedal: 32’ Flue and Reed,  Posaune 16’