First in line for the chopping block

First in line for the chopping block

Hymn #12 -- 'Twas Witnessed in the Morning Sky

Text: G. William Richards (b. 1918; LDS)
Music: H. Walford Davies (1869-1941); altered
Tune name: SOLEMN MELODY

Up to this point, I've discussed a few hymns of questionable quality. But I've yet to see a hymn that I feel, without reservation, should get the chopping block in the new go around...until now.

*Note of General Clarification: 

Let me be entirely clear. I'm the first composer to raise my hand and admit that sometimes, what I write is total crap. Sometimes it needs to go right into the dung heap. If I am at times harsh or expect more of the composers who have written sub-par hymns, know that I am the sever with myself and the music I write, especially the sacred music as it serves a much more significant and more important role than self-aggrandizement. I am vicious when it comes to revisions of my own music. I take the lead from composers like Chopin and Brahms who only ever published something when they were sure it was perfect! And Brahms spent the last week of his life burning all his sketches. He didn't want his imperfections found by some musicologist and published as an interesting study, or as a Posthumous work of which he vehemently disapproved. 

What I'm trying to do with this blog is NOT to berate composers who have written LDS hymns. What I'm trying to do is offer help to those who want to write their own LDS hymn. So, my nitpicking and "Cardinal red pen" marking mania are meant to draw attention to things that modern hymn-writers should beware or take note of as good or bad or excellent or slipshod hymn-writing. I want to help you build a toolbox so when you're writing, you have your little shoulder angel watching out for you.

Ok, enough of that.

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The text of this hymn is very appropriate and full of Restoration verve. And most of the music is quite nice. But H. Walford Davies commits the Cardinal sin not once, but twice in his adaptation of this hymn. 

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The music starts out convincingly and colors the pause of the half-way point of Line 1 with a diminished chord on B-natural resolving to the 5 chord. The melody comes to a climax and the error jumps out to grab us. A big, fat, parallel 5th on the word "earthward" between the alto and tenor voice. The B-flat of the tenor makes a perfect 5th with the F in the alto. Then, the alto steps down to an E as the tenor steps down in the exact same motion to the A, another perfect 5th. 

Then, after giving an excellent start to the 2nd Line, HE DOES IT AGAIN!! Mama mia!

The thing is, it's a super easy fix. It just requires a little re-voicing and the problem is solved. Here are 2 possible solutions, one for each of the offending parallel 5ths. #1 is for the word "earthward" and #2 is for the word "joyful" at the end of line 2.

In both cases, rather than have the tenor step down to the A, causing the parallel 5th, just keep the common tone. Keep the B-flat. It fits in both chords. Problem solved. Easy!

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I assume Mr. Davies didn't have an editor or someone to run his hymn by to check for errors. This is 1st draft error kind of stuff. And this is why I think the hymn should get the chop. We can do better than this. We don't need basic part writing and voice leading errors like this in our hymnal. 

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Other than these 2 issues, and the bit of adjacent voice crossing at the beginning of the final line, I think this music is quite nice. (The voice crossing happens in the soprano and alto. The first notes, the F and E-flat, both resolve to a unison D. Technically, the soprano had to cross over where the alto was on the E-flat to get to the D. It's a minor offense and not nearly as worrisome as the blatant parallel 5ths.) And there's another nice diminished 7th chord in the last line of the "-tions" of "nations." 

There's potential here for sure. But those parallel 5ths. I just can't let those pass. ("YOU, SHALL, NOT, PASS!" -- Gandalf)

That's all for today. Tune in tomorrow for a bit of an oddity.

Have a good one!

Doug


Commentary from "The Bench Warmer"

by Jason Gunnell, Organist

The tune Solemn Melody is one of my all-time favorite tunes and think it fantastic that it finds a unique place in our hymnal. It is based on a work by Walford Davies of the same name, and I use the arrangement for organ often for solemn occasions, such as funerals and for All Saints Day observations. Interestingly, the text is G. William Richards’ adaptation of the Davis text for the preceding hymn, or at least his take on it, as he didn’t like the question-and-answer format of the text. The first two verses are a paraphrase of the Davis text, while the third verse is Richards’ own. About his adaptation, Richards stated “I believe this hymn should be sung in a slow, solemn manner to be really beautiful. This concept may be an obstacle to the tune’s acceptance and popularity, for many people think of the restoration as bright and joyful. But truly, it is possible to be joyful in a solemn and dignified manner.”

The organ arrangement of the Walford Davies composition is a powerful piece of music that can be heard on the “Now Let Us Rejoice” CD I mentioned earlier. Quoting from the program notes in the CD liner:

Rather than having been based on a preexistent hymn tune, “Solemn Melody,” an original composition by Sir Henry Walford Davies, is the source from which a hymn tune of the same name was later derived. Englishman Davies was a prominent composer, organist, teacher, and conductor during the early 20th century. “Solemn Melody,” originally scored for strings and organ and later arranged for solo organ, was composed in 1908 for the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the birth of English poet John Milton...The tune SOLEMN MELODY is found in the current LDS hymnbook with the text “Twas Witnessed in the Morning Sky.” G. William Richards, a prominent and highly trained church musician who served on the Church’s 1985 Hymnbook Executive Committee, adapted the tune and wrote the words. The text is loosely based on an earlier Restoration hymn by John S. Davis.

I love this hymn and hope it keeps a place in the new hymnal. I love the idea and suggestion of singing this restoration text in a solemn and dignified manner! This is the first hymn in our journey where I am not advocating for a significantly quicker tempo than is suggested! I actually would play it much closer to the lower range of the suggestion than at 96. I find the suggested 76 to be a very good tempo, and might even play it a titch slower to preserve the stately nature of the tune.

Registration can also have a strong impact on the affect of the hymn. I would definitely explore the use of 16’s and dark chorus reeds in the manual and a strong pedal to accompany.

Registration Starting Point:
Great: Bourdon 16’, Principal 8’, 4’, Flute 8’
Swell: Principal 8’, Flute 8’, 4’, 2’, Nazard 2 ⅔’ (?), Hautbois 8’
Pedal: Principal 16’, 8’, Bourdon 16’, Flute 8’, 16’ Reed
Sw/Gt, Sw/Ped

Possible Final Verse Additions:
Great: Principal 2’
Swell: Mixture, Trumpet 8’
Pedal: Posaune 16’, Bourdon and/or Reed 32’