Do the words come first, or does the music?

Do the words come first, or does the music?

Hymn #9 -- Come, Rejoice

Text and music: Tracy Y. Cannon (1879-1961; LDS); adapted
Tune name: HINCKLEY

"Come, Rejoice" was Hymn #1 of the 1950 hymnal. An appropriate choice. It welcomes the worshipers to the chapel. "Come, rejoice, the King of glory / Speaks to earth again." And each verse ends with a Hosanna shout..."Shout hosanna to his name; / One and all his might proclaim." 

I've never written my own hymn text. Whenever I've noticed that a hymn's text and music were written by the same person, I always wonder which came first.

Whenever I compose vocal music, whether it be opera, cantata, choral anthem, hymn, art song, whatever, I can't write a note without first having the words fully formed. This is easy enough when it's a pre-existing text. But it gets a little more interesting when working with a poet. 

I was interested to read what Tracy Cannon said about the creation of this hymn. 

"The reason for writing this hymn was that I desired to compose a hymn on the restoration of the gospel. It has always been easier for me to write music than words. The music of this hymn kept filling my mind and I, therefore, wrote words that seemed to me to suit the spirit of the music." (Stories of Our Mormon Hymns, p. 4.)

So, in this case, in what for me is a completely backward way (not a judgment on the composer, just my strange mind not being able to work the other way around), this hymn was written first as music, and the words came after.

Let's get into the music.

This is a delightful hymn all around. I love the energy, the almost constant motion in the bass, and the 2/2 time signature. 

There are 2 quirks that raise flags in my mind. I'll get to those in a bit.

First, let's have a look at the structure. We have 4 lines of music divided into 2 clear halves. Here's how I would label this structure.

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  • Phrase #1 -- we'll call it "A1" -- bars 1 through 4, ending on the 5 chord.
  • Phrase #2 -- "A2" -- bars 5 through 8, also ending of the 5 chord. The melody of A2 starts exactly the same as A1 until the B-natural which leads to a strong end to the first half of the hymn on the 5 chord. Having heard basically the same tune now twice, with some simple changes the 2nd time, we expect something new. And we get it.
  • Phrase #3 -- "B" -- bars 9 through 12. Phrases A1 and A2 had an ascending motion for 2 bars followed by a descent. Phrase B starts high on the repeated B-flat, not once, not twice, but 3 times followed by my favorite part, a cadence ending on the 6 chord. More about the end of this phrase and its harmony below.
  • Phrase #4 -- "A3" -- bars 13 through 16. Again, the tune begins in the same way as Phrases 1 and 2 and ends with a strong cadence on the 1 chord. The only phrase ending on the 1 chord. What makes the final cadence even stronger is that it's preceded by the 1 steady moment in the bassline, C half-note, C half-note, F.

The bassline is so much fun in this hymn. It's almost hyper-active. If I was a bass, I think this would be my favorite hymn. The melody is also wonderfully active which evokes the spirit of "rejoicing" the title indicates. 

Let's have a look at the harmony.

For the most part it quite standard. But there are a couple bits of harmony we haven't seen yet.

First is the halfway point of Phrase 2, the B-natural in the melody going up to the C. It's followed in the next bar by the same chord with a B-natural going to a C chord, the 5 chord.

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The 2nd chord with the B-natural going to the C is in a standard "root" position. It's a G major chord going to a C major chord. We've seen these before. It's what we call a "secondary dominant." In other words, we pretend for a minute that we're in the key of C, the key of the 5 chord, and we tonicize C major with its 5 chord, a G major chord. But since it's a G major chord and G major needs B-naturals, and the piece we're currently in has B-flats in the key signature, we need a B-natural to give us that strong dominant gravity moving to the C chord. Pretty standard. And we'll see this over and over again throughout the hymnal.

But the 1st time we see the B-natural, even though it's the exact same G major chord going to a C major chord, just like at the end of the line, both of these chords are NOT in root position. Meaning the G of the G chord is NOT the bass note. And the C of the C chord is NOT in the bass note. Instead, the F is in the bass of the G chord, and the F is the 7th of the G chord. This is one of the strongest gravitational pulls in all of music. The 7th of a dominant chord in the bass. And it "always" must step down to its lower neighbor. This works really well here because the bassline is so active. It gives the bassline even more strength as it works it's way toward the punctuation of Phrase 2, the pause on the 5 chord on the word "strain."

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The 2nd and most interesting bit of harmony happens at the end of the 3rd Phrase. I did some chord analysis for the geeks in the blogosphere, like me :) Above the staff are chords by pitch name. Below are the dorky Roman Numerals for Music Theory nerds.

So, think about the text for a minute. We're rejoicing in the return of the Lord's voice in the Restoration. On the 3rd line..."Truth bursts forth in radiant light..." But then, "Showing all the path of right," as if to say, "hey, guys, you've been lost for a while, but the light has come back, it's time to get back on the Lord's path and "shout hosannas to his name..." So, on the word "right," the last word of the 3rd Phrase, we pause on the 6 chord. A cadence on the 6 chord. We usually call this a "deceptive" cadence. We use that term because we were led to believe by the way the harmony was going, that we were headed for the 1 chord and the end of the piece. Instead, the composer pulls the old "slipperoo" and pauses on the 6 chord. "I'm not finished yet..." 

When a composer uses a "deceptive" cadence like this, it's not usually a full traditional tonicizing of the 6 chord. It usually doesn't require any new sharps or flats. To make the point stronger, the point about not having the right path for a while, on this cadence, the composer actually tonicizes the 6 chord by playing it's dominant, the A major chord, right before it. It's as if the whole key of the piece went into the "deceptive" key, the key of the 6 chord. And, to strengthen that cadence on the 6 chord even more, right before the A chord, we get a diminished chord that leads right into the A7. Tons of harmonic gravitational pull. Fantastic writing!

Then, without having to perform any "get out of jail" harmony, the composer can slip right back into F major, the key of the piece. This is an easy transition because the 6 chord that we just paused on and the 1 chord that we start Phrase 4 with, have 2 notes in common. The F and the A. So, it's not a far-fetched move at all. It's very comfortable on the ear.

Now for the 2 small bits that give me pause.

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First, the "Unison" marking at the beginning. I don't know why they did this. But I suspect that the bassline is so active, that to add a tenor line in most of the hymn, and to ask people to sing parts, was asking too much. Because it moves at a quick tempo and the parts move around so much, it would not be very easy to get a 4-part average LDS congregation to sing all that motion. I don't mind it at all. I think it makes sense. Plus, the keyboard part is busy enough (especially the bass) that to add a tenor line along with all that motion in the left hand, would be asking a lot of the pianist or organist. Probably too much for a hymn. So, I say, "good call."

The second little question mark I have in my mind is the setting of the text of the last line. "Shout hosanna to his name." When I see that text, my "composer" brain goes immediately up in the register. I want to sing something in my wheelhouse. Something that will let me raise my voice and make a big joyful noise! I have a hard time doing that way down on a middle C, the bottom of my register. I understand why the composer chose to do this from a structural point of view. And it's not a showstopper for me in this hymn because there's so much else to keep me engaged and having fun "rejoicing." It just makes me wonder if there could be a better way, a more "full voice" way of setting that bit of text.

Well, that's all for today. I look forward to hearing what you think.

Have a good one!

Doug

P.S. If you know someone who would really enjoy my Free Report: "9 Ingredients of Great Hymn Writing," or find it helpful, please forward them this blog post and encourage them to subscribe below. Or they can click over to www.douglaspew.com/freehymnreport.