Vikings Storm the Chapel and Raid Sacrament Meeting
Hymn #27 -- Praise to the Man
Text: William W. Phelps (179201872; LDS)
Music: Scottish folk song
Tune name: MARTYR
I remember watching "The Dead Poet's Society" when I was a young teenager and hearing the bagpipes play a familiar tune. I was like, "Hey, I just played that song in priesthood meeting on Sunday! Wow, I wonder how they found out about this hymn in our hymnbook. Maybe one of the people who made the movie is a Mormon?"
Little did I know that this was the tune called "Scotland the Brave," and that it has a long history and didn't originate in our hymnal. Haha, seems like a typical thought process for a 12-year-old...
We won't plum the depths of my adolescent ineptitudes any further. We'd be here all day.
William W. Phelps, who was a close friend and personal secretary to the prophet Joseph Smith, must have felt the terrible blow of his martyrdom deeply. We have several accounts of how the prophet was murdered. We also have many tributes written in his honor. One of the most powerful is section 135 of the Doctrine and Covenants, written by John Taylor who was in the room when it all went down.
Hymn #27, "Praise to the Man" is no less a fitting eulogy and perhaps more impactful because it's set to a rousing tune which lets us sing our hearts out.
The text is powerful, but it has been altered slightly. The first 2 lines of the 2nd verse originally said:
Long may his blood, which was shed by assassins,
Stain Illinois while the earth lauds his fame.
It was later changed to remove the finger-pointing at Illinois. It now reads as follows:
Plead unto heav'n while the earth lauds his fame.
I love the bouncy nature of the music. And knowing now that the tune is a Scottish folk tune, it reminds me of a quirk of the Scottish. They have a curious word they use; "Berserker" or "Berserking." Have you heard these words before? On of my favorite living classical composers is the Scottish composer, Sir James MacMillan. He wrote a piano concerto called "The Berserking" and he explains what this word means.
"'Berserkers' were special warriors common to the Vikings and the ancient Celtic tribes, who would work themselves into a frenzy with mead, mushrooms and hyperventilation to achieve performances of ferocious courage in battle. Although deadly in combat, the berserking process was paradoxically a suicidal one since, having lost their senses, they were vulnerable to a more stealthy attack. As a Scot living in the modern world this behavior seems very familiar! I see its pointlessness as resembling the Scots’ seeming facility for shooting themselves in the foot in political and, for that matter, in sporting endeavors. (In fact the initial burst of inspiration for 'The Berserking' came in 1989 after watching a soccer game in which Glasgow Celtic turned in a characteristically passionate, frenzied but ultimately futile display against Partizan Belgrade!)."
－ Sir James MacMillan
I love this idea of Berserking. It reminds me of many Scout Camps when we'd be worked up into a frenzy about something or other. And it's funny because sometimes this hymn turns into a Berserking all its own. On my mission in Chile during a big missionary conference, we'd often get our selves riled up and practically foaming at the mouth with enthusiasm singing this hymn and Hymn #249 "Called to Serve". We'd take the tempo so fast and furious that we'd undoubtedly end up in a heap of bodies and quarter notes all around the chapel.
Something about this hymn gives it that almost 'wild' quality if the tempo is too fast. But it sure is fun to sing. Right out of the gate we get a bit riled by the opening middle C repetition and dotted rhythm. This launches us into a stratospheric ascent right up the 1 chord to the high E, like going from 0 to 100 mpg in 4 seconds flat.
As the voices come back down the scale continuing the dotted eighth-sixteenth rhythm, we get a bar of solid, straight eighth notes on the words "Prophet and Seer," which feel like quick marching steps. After pausing on the 5 chord, we go plunging right back into to battle with the same exact music as before. The only difference is the final chord and a sneaky F in the tenors for just a tad of subtle difference. This nearly identical phrase repetition with all the "berserking" qualities gets us even more excited.
Now, will the 3rd phrase calm us down a bit, or lather us up even more?
It feels to me as if we've been in one of those "berserker" hudles for the first 2 phrases of the piece and when we hit the 3rd phrase, we bust out and run pale male into the fray.
The bassline especially gives us the kick in the rear we need to hurry to battle. All that quick motion up and down the first five notes of the scale, like it's a chariot wheel going round and round. And then we all join in with the unison "vain...."
And the last phrase? Well, more of the same, of course. We're in it now. We've passed 'The Point of No Return.' We get phrase 2 again exactly, down to every single note and rhythm.
It's the best when we get to sing this hymn as the intermediate hymn. We stand up and get our blood pumping for 4 verses. Too bad we can't have drums in Sacrament Meeting. We could have all sorts of fun! :)
Well, enough 'berserking' for today. Come back tomorrow and we'll see if singing 30% of a hymn with unison voices is too much, or if it enhances the hymn in some way.
Have a great one!
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Commentary from "The Bench Warmer"
by Jason Gunnell, Organist
Another beloved hymn of the restoration honoring the Prophet Joseph. A fitting testimony to the work and importance of this great man so integral to the gospel plan. And what a great tune to match the message of the text! I love the Mack Wilberg arrangement of this hymn (excepting the decrescendo at the end, a common tool he uses, but this text and tune to me cry out to be ended triumphantly…) and commend it to you for listening.
Rather than feeling in two but being in four, this hymn is actually in two (!) and needs to be played at a tempo to emphasize that. I think that the tunes do a wonderful job communicating what the tempo needs to be, and this tune desires to be at about the half note equal to 102 beats per minute (to be clear, that’s the quarter note equal to 204!). A good tempo to match the suggestion of “vigorously.” I would also use all of the tools at my disposal to register vigorously, with principal chorus to mixture, adding reeds for the final verse and saving an addition for the final peal of the chorus.
Registration Starting Point:
Great: Principal 8’, 4’, 2’, Mixture
Swell: Principal 8’, 4’, 2’, Mixture, Flute 8’ if needed, Viola 8’ if needed
Pedal: Principal 16’, 8’, 4’, Bourdon 16’, Flute 8’, Reed 16’
Possible Final Verse Additions:
Great: Trumpet 8’
Swell: 16’ Reed, Trumpet 8’ (4’ Reed for chorus)
Pedal: 32’, (flue and reed)