How to Weaken a Powerful Hymn Text

How to Weaken a Powerful Hymn Text

Hymn #43 -- "Zion Stands with Hills Surrounded"

Text: Thomas Kelly (1769-1854)
Music: A. C. Smyth (1840-1909; LDS)
Tune name: SAFETY

"They that trust in the Lord shall be as mount Zion, which cannot be removed, but abideth for ever. So the Lord is round about his people from henceforth even for ever." (Psalm 125:1-2)

Karen Davidson quotes this scripture as at the start of her discussion of Hymn #43. I agree with her. This verse describes the safety and security felt by members of the church throughout the world who find refuge in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Thomas Kelly's hymn text further describes these feelings and extends the conversation to the eternal love the Father and Son have for followers of Christ.

Unfortunately, the music doesn't quite achieve the strength of the text. One section, in particular, weakens the message substantially, at least it does in my ears. 


Right away we get a decent enough tune, but being set in a 3/4 time signature, it feels a little too "sing-song." The A-B and F#-G slurs give the opening bars a soothing "pastoral" feel. I'd much rather have a bold statement right out of the gate in 4/4. ZI-on STANDS with HILLS sur-ROUND-ded. And what's with the low A on the work "surrounded"? Do we really need to go that low? It buries the sound in the opening phrase instead of depicting the standing on hills and the divine power keeping the gate of Zion. The tune starts at middle register and goes all the down into the basement. Is this a hymn about the abyss, or about Zion?


There's nothing wrong with the 2nd line other than the continuation of the sing-song style accompanying this text: "All her foes shall be confounded." I'm a little confounded at the missed opportunity for a power-house setting of this text. 

I can't quite put my finger on why, but I prefer the 7th of the chord in the final bar of line 2 on the F#-major chord. Likewise, I prefer a brief re-voicing of the cadence in the middle of line 3 on the word "combine." These re-workings sound more convincing to me.


The "Happy Zion, Happy Zion" section that ends line 3 and begins line 4 is the real weak link. I wonder if this used to be sopranos and altos only in an earlier version of the hymn. Doubling the women's parts exactly in the men and an octave below is not my favorite solution. Not by a long shot. This kind of choral writing is extremely effective in situations where there is a loud accompaniment underneath, either organ or orchestra plowing away in some majestic accompaniment. It just sounds odd and out of place in the middle of this hymn with no accompaniment. 

Should this hymn be kept in the new hymanl, I vote "no."

That's all for today. See you tomorrow.


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P.P.S. To see my complete harmonic analysis of Hymn #43, click the button below.

Commentary from "The Bench Warmer"

by Jason Gunnell, Organist

This hymn strikes me as a solid hymn, but in a manner that doesn’t really excite, but is dignified. I guess my initial thoughts are brief, but that is all that comes to mind today for this hymn.

Like some of the hymns in three discussed before, the best road to success in playing this hymn is feeling it in one. Quarter note equal to 126-128 is a nice solid tempo that lends itself to feeling the pulse in one while keeping the dignity of the hymn. I would use a principal chorus through 2’ to register this hymn, perhaps adding a low-pitched mixture for the final verse.

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

Possible Final Verse Additions:
Great: Mixture ?
Swell: or Trumpet 8’ ?
Pedal: Reed 16’