Hymns in Minor Mode?! Blasphemy?!

Hymns in Minor Mode?! Blasphemy?!

Hymn #126 — “How Long, O Lord Most Holy and True”

Text: John A. Widtsoe (1872-1952; LDS)
Music: B. Cecil Gates (1887-1941; LDS)
Tune name: JACOB

Why is there such an aversion to hymns in minor in our church?

I’ve never understood this.

The minor mode opens up a whole set of new emotional possibilities.

Maybe it’s the Molly Mormon idea that everything is sunshine and roses all the time. Or, that we should always be cheerful.

I’m all for being cheerful. But that doesn’t mean that we sometimes don’t need to express the challenges of life. If we bottle it all up, we’re likely to explode.

Getting into the minor mode sometimes acts like a release valve of internal tension for me.

Hymn #126 is very deep in the sealed portion of the hymnal. Probably for the sole reason that it’s in a minor key. That’s really too bad because it’s a beautiful hymn.

And, the text was written by an Apostle.

We quote texts all the time that depict difficulty and challenge. Like Doctrine & Covenants 121 and 122 when Joseph Smith was in Liberty Jail. Those verses get pretty dark and gloomy, until the answer comes. Why can’t we do that more often in our hymns? The minor mode is perfect for that kind of expression.

Well, hymn writers, I want to encourage you to work in minor when you feel the need. If more of us wrote excellent hymns in minor, maybe a few would catch on and we could make a change in the Latter-day Saint worship music scene.

One of my hymns is in minor. It’s a Holy Week hymn called, “What Cost, What Price, What Debt We Owe.” My friend and collaborator, Dr. Carlton Monroe, director of music at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Cincinnati, love this hymn. He told me that he can’t imagine a Palm Sunday without it. I was able to get deep into emotional content because of all the harmonic options the minor mode presented me.

The tune in hymn #126 is nice, shapely, easy to sing (for the most part), and emotional. The harmony is also nice. I like the slow 2/2 tempo and the gentle moving of the harmony, sometimes in half notes, other times in quarters to reach a high point in a phrase.

One small element that stands out to me as a nice touch is when the melody holds a dotted half note as the harmony moves in half notes. That subtle rhythmic alteration both moves the hymn forward and ads some nice variety.

There is one spot in the middle of the hymn that makes the tune a bit awkward. It’s the C# at the beginning of bar 12.

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I assume the composer did this to create a consistently descending melody line to accompany the steadily descending chromatic bass line. However, the C# feels a little abrupt in the texture. If I had composed this hymn, I would have written this passage like this:

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Avoiding the C# by holding over the D and descending down to the C-natural keeps with the feel of the texture. And we don’t lose the emotional content created by the slowly descending chromatic bass line. That does its job perfectly and is my favorite element of the entire hymn.

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All in all, I think this is a lovely hymn that should be programmed in our services. I love the way it goes a little darker to contemplate the internal challenges we all face. Music’s purpose in worship is to bring us closer to the Lord. Usually we yearn for Him most when we’re experiencing challenges. A hymn like this one can be just what one needs to bridge the spiritual gap between us and the Savior.

That’s all for today.

Have a good one!

Doug


Commentary from “The Bench Warmer”

by Jason Gunnell, Organist

This is a fantastic hymn, and so unfortunate that likely only those who have given significant study and consideration to the hymnal know of its existence. It could be that due to the paucity of hymns in our book in a mode other than minor, we are unaccustomed to hymn tunes in modes or minor keys. This is rather unfortunate, as some of the very best hymn tunes are not in a major key. We might do well to borrow some of them and place them in our new hymnal!

The text of this hymn is by John A. Widtsoe, an apostle who also wrote the text for “Lead me into life eternal” (Hymn #45). It is a plaintive and sincere prayer to Heavenly Father asking for help with mortal frailties and seeking the hastening of the establishment of Heavenly Father’s kingdom, also teaching that seeking Heavenly Father’s will and truth are what help light our way. This text is an example of a lamentation or cry by Elder Widtsoe in the same vein as scriptural pleas, such as we find from prophets such as Nephi and Jeremiah. What a powerful example of how hymn texts of the wide variety of subjects for great hymn texts.

What better manner to accompany a plaintive plea and lamentation that a tune in a minor mode. While minor keys need not always be associated with sadness, laments, trials, etc., music in minor modes do tend to often carry these connotations. The tune is masterful, as is the accompanying harmonization. Some elements of this tune and harmonization that make it one of the finest hymn tunes we have in our hymnal include: the rising bass line in the first phrase, the amount of time in the hymn that the bass note is not the root of the chord, the deceptive cadence at the end of the second phrase, the descending chromatic melody in the third line, and the final cadence with the use of appoggiatura on the final word, delaying the resolution to the final chord. I cannot stress how great I think this hymn tune is. It is masterful.

I like the suggested tempo. It is appropriate for the solemn nature of this hymn. This is one hymn that I think can afford to go slowly, and the suggested tempo is I think a very good range. On how to register this hymn, I would explore the darker colors of the organ, likely utilizing the Hautbois if it is dark in color (but not if it is more similar to a Trumpet…), and using 16’ stops in the manual divisions, especially toward the beginning.

Registration Starting Point:
Great: Bourdon 16’, Principal 8’, Flute 8’
Swell: Principal 8’, Flute 8’, 4’, String 8’, Hautbois 8’, Bassoon 16’ (if it is not too prevalent)
Pedal: Subbass 32’, 16’, Bourdon 16’, Flute 8’, Contra Bassoon 32’, 16’ (if available)
Sw/Gt, Sw/Ped

Possible Final Verse Additions:
Great: Flute 4’
Swell: Flute 2’
Pedal: