A Holy Body Builder's Theme Song
Text: Tehodore E. Curtis (1872-1957; LDS)
Music: Evan Stephens (1854-1930; LDS)
Tune name; ESTHER
For some reason I keep hearing this text in an Arnold Schwarzenegger voice…
“My ahm is zo big, yoo kan leen on it. And don’t vory, I’ll be bach.”
All joking aside, this is a rather muscular hymn. At least when it comes to the use of harmony. Evan Stephens really flexes his composer muscles. He shows how pivoting between a major key and both its relative and parallel minor keys can be incredibly effective.
“Ya, I pump kompohzer iron.”
What is uniquely beautiful about this hymn text, is it comes from Jesus to his followers. Very rarely are any of our hymns presented from His perspective, speaking to us. I find that one of the most comforting elements of this truly beautiful, but tragically almost unknown hymn.
The tune begins with a simple imploring turn of phrase. Then it matches the more robust part of the sentence, “O thou depressed,” with a leap to the high register.
The second line begins with a variation of the opening 2 bars and a step into the parallel minor key of D minor. That’s where the composer gets the B-flats from. Then the phrase ends in a pretty standard half cadence, pausing on the 5 chord.
The tune then becomes a study on the high D. We hear 4, 2-bar phrases in a row that all start with a high D. The harmony takes each phrase on unique emotional journey and finally comes to a close with a variation of line 1.
The harmony is where the real body-building composer-flexing occurs.
The hymn begins with a quick step into the parallel minor key, D minor. Parallel minor meaning, the piece still begins and ends on D, but instead of D major, it slips to D minor.
The pedal D in the bass keeps on on solid ground. The tenor is responsible for the slip to d-minor with the sagging lowered 7th and 6th stepping down to A.
The end of line 1 falls back into normal harmony. It supports the high melody with a strong sounding 5 chord with the 7th in the bass, the G, which has a very powerful urge to resolve down to the F# as a 1 chord in 1st inversion
Line 2 ups the ante a bit. The opening bars follow the same harmony as line 1, but the melody rises a bit more hitting the B-flat. The second half of the line prepares for the pause on the 5 chord with the 5 chord of the 5 chord, the E-major chord. Pretty standard too.
But now the fun is about to begin.
The last melody note at the end of line 2 is a high C#. This is the 7th note in the scale. So a pause on this high note needs to be resolved in our ear. We need it to go up to D and land on a 1 chord.
Well, it does hit the high D, but we don’t get a 1 chord. Not even close.
The first high D tops an E# fully diminished 7th chord. This doesn’t fit in D major at all. It doesn’t fit in D minor either. But it does make sense in the “relative” minor key of B minor. Remember, relative keys share the same key signature but start on different notes. This hymn is in D major, which shares a key signature with B minor.
So an E# diminished chord sounds like it’s going to precede an F# chord. And F# is the 5 chord in B minor. So when we hear this chord, whether you know it or not, starts listening for a resolution to an F# chord.
But we never get an F# chord. Instead, the composer, after passing through a C# minor chord, rests on a quick D major chord. So we’re not firmly in B minor because the phrase rests on D major, the original 1 chord. We’re in a sort of limbo between the two relative keys and pivoting back and forth on the strongest common note between the keys, the high D.
The second half of line 3 basically repeats the first half, with a couple subtle differences.
But line 4 decides it hasn’t yet had enough of the “parallel” minor. The same key we slipped into in the first 2 lines, with the C-naturals and B-flats.
Line 4 repeats the high D, but this time on top of a B-flat major chord. We call this chord the chromatic sub-mediant. Sub-mediant, meaning the chord built on the 6th note in the scale, the B. Chromatic, meaning it’s not a normal B, it’s a B-flat, which belongs to the “parallel” minor key of D-minor.
As line 3 did, the opening of line 4, though it’s stepping out of its home key, ends the phrase back in D major.
We’ve now had 3, 2-bar phrases in a row with a high D to start us off. Some were in the “parallel” minor mode, others in the “relative” minor mode. What will the 4th and final phrase of this middle section do to round it off?
It beings as line 4 began with a high D and a B-flat major chord. The there’s an important chord that answers all these questions about which key we’re really in followed by a big climax chord, D-major in 2nd inversion with a super high F# on top.
But what’s the super special chord in between with the B-flats and the G#s?
The chord is B-flat, D, E, G#. Or in solfege syllables, Le, Do, Re, Fi. The B-flat resolves down a half step to A and the G# resolves up a half step to A while the rest of the fermata chord holds a D and F#.
This is what we call a French Augmented 6th Chord. Basically, it’s a dominant 7th chord built on the lowered 6th scale degree. In this case, the B-flat. But it’s spelled incorrectly and on purpose. A normal B-flat dominant 7th chord is spelled B-flat, D, F, A-flat. This one changes the A-flat to a G# so it will resolve up to an A. And it swaps out the F for an E to add a little “french” color.
It’s a powerful “wedge” kind of a chord that fits between pre-dominant chords (chords that come before a 5 chord) and the 5 chord itself. But rather than resolve directly to the 5 chord, it often resolves to a 1 chord in 2nd inversion, which almost always resolves to a 5 chord afterwards.
Rather than resolve to a 5 chord, an A chord, line 5 starts directly on the 1 chord and takes us home to the final cadence without ever hitting a 5 chord. Instead, the composer borrows again from the “parallel” minor of D minor and gives us a beautiful, emotional final cadence. It skips the 5 chord all together and plays first a 2 chord, then a 2 diminished chord, then the final 1 chord.
It’s so unfortunate that this hymn gets stuck in the sealed portion of the hymnal. It’s a brilliant hymn with all sorts of wonderfulness.
I think many pianists and organists are afraid of all the sharps and flats. And I think the high F# condemns the hymn from regular congregational use. I don’t see why the hymn couldn’t be set down a whole step in C major. This would be much more manageable for a congregation. Alas, I’m not the decision maker here. Though I wouldn’t mind having a say in things like this.
Regardless, I hope you’ll come to love this hymn and use it in your Sacrament meeting services. And use it as an interesting model of harmonic hymn writing that is very effective.
That’s all for today. Have a good one!
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Commentary form “The Bench Warmer”
by Jason Gunnell, Organist
Like hymn #118, we are reaching into the deepest recesses of the sealed portion of the hymnal for today’s hymn. And like #118, it is an absolute gem of a hymn. Continuing with the similarities to Ye Simple Souls Who Stray, it is a hymn that is considered to be more difficult for a congregation to sing, not only due to its unfamiliarity.
Concerning this hymn, J. Spencer Cornwall commented that “this choir hymn is almost of anthem proportions. It is somewhat dramatic in its harmonic content, reaching an imposing climax in the fourth line. The final measures which reiterate the first phrase are calm and impressively peaceful.”
Ever optimistic, Karen Davidson reports that “this hymn was labeled for choir use in the 1950 hymnal. The pitch was lowered for the 1985 hymnal, and the music is not too difficult for most congregations.” I agree with her, as I think that we are capable of doing more congregationally than we do. I think people are surprised at their vocal range when they aren’t thinking about it or aware of it. When I warm choirs up with many who are untrained, they are surprised when I tell them what notes they were singing during the warm up. I think we are capable of more than we think, and that not being able to sing above a certain point is very often only a self-imposed limitation. Of course this is a general observation, knowing that some voices do have limitations, but I think that far more often that is the exception, and not the rule.
The harmonic language of this hymn is fantastic and highlights how departing from simple harmony can be extremely effective in painting a poignant text such as this. Though not always needed or advised, for this tune and text, the harmony is brilliant. If you have never heard this hymn, I encourage you to play it and to listen to it. It is sublime! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWn48w7vX80 (this is hymn singing at its absolute finest!)
I am not keeping track of all of my tempo recommendations and how they differ from the suggestion, but this may be the first or second that I would recommend taking on the slow end. 88 I think is too fast for this piece. 72 beats per minute is more inline with the text and melody, though I can understand taking it a titch or two faster for congregational singing. I would use a quiet registration and not vary it for the second verse.
Great: Principal 8’, Flute 8’
Swell: Principal 8’, Flute 8’, 4’, String 8’
Pedal: Subbass 16’, Bourdon 16’, Flute 8’