When a hymn gets the emPHAsis on the wrong syLLAble

When a hymn gets the emPHAsis on the wrong syLLAble

Hymn #11 -- What Was Witnessed in the Heavens?

Text: John S. Davis (1813-1882; LDS)
Music: Evan Stephens (1854-1930; LDS)

Karen Davidson begins her article on this hymn in her book with these words: "This unusual hymn..." Stop right there. Unusual. Yep, that about sums it up. 

I think this is a nice little piece for a ward choir. It's like a Latter-day motet. Question and Answer. Call and Response. Men alone, then the ladies join. To my ears, it's not congregational at all.

Like the previous hymn, there are some issues with the text in this hymn. "Had he something with him bringing?"  Hmm...

But the bit of text that really gets me is in line 3. "It was to be preached in power." The text is fine. It's how it's set that gets my goat. The word "to," probably the least important word in the phrase, is set on the strong beat. "It was TO be preached in power." But Evan Stephens didn't have much choice. The went against the meter and beat pattern he'd set up from the beginning.

"What was WIT-nesses..."
"Why, an AN-gel..."
"Had he SOME-thing..."
"Yes, the GOS-pel..."
"It was TO be..." 

Wait... what?! That one doesn't jive. 


Unfortunately, this is not the only instance in the hymnal when we get the emPHAsis on the wrong syLLAble. 

It must be challenging to make sure every verse ALWAYS adheres to the beat pattern. But in the 1st verse, at the very least, it should stick to the pattern. It bugs me when it doesn't stick to it in all the verses, but I feel more lenient if the 1st verse is with it. But when I arrange one of these hymns that messes up syllable emphasis, I always do something in the way I'm arranging the piece so that the text feels more natural and not as disjointed as it's forced to be by the rigidity of the standard hymn structure. 

The harmony is almost entirely basic. But I love the slip to the 6 chord at the beginning of the 4th line on "men" of "To all men." I also love all the triplet motion in the alto, tenor, and bass voices in lines 3 and 4. They keep the texture fresh and interesting. We also get another "appoggiatura," but this time it resolves correctly, by step in the opposite direction, unlike the resolution in the same direction we saw in yesterday's hymn. It happens on the word "nations" in the last line. The D doesn't belong. It was preceded by a leap, and it steps out of it to a C on the next chord. 


Right after the appoggiatura comes the fun chord with A-naturals and F-sharps. This is a diminished 7th chord that doesn't belong in this key. A-natural, C, E-flat, and F-sharp. This chord resolves to a tonic chord in 2nd inversion, an E-flat chord with B-flat in the bass. The diminished 7th chord has the E-flat in common with the next chord. And the other notes resolve by step. The A-natural resolves up by a half-step to the B-flat. The C resolves down a whole-step to the B-flat. And the F# resolves up by a half-step to G. It's a nice, "Barbershop-ish" kind of resolution. 

Though I don't care for this hymn and don't think it belongs in the new hymnal, there is one thing that I really like about it. I can hear one of Evan Stephens other hymns, a great one, "In Remembrance of Thy Suffering," #183. We'll get to that one in another 172 days or so...

Enough for today. Have a good one!


Commentary from "The Bench Warmer"

by Jason Gunnell, Organist

Certainly an interesting addition to our hymnal firmly planted in the sealed portion of the book. I find it a very good text teaching of restored truth and what happens to those who do not receive it here in mortality. Like Doug, I do find this more useful as a motet with its call and response set up, and perhaps this is why I cannot recall a meeting I have been in where this has been sung. However, I don’t think that I am inclined to be as critical of hymn texts for word orders as has been discussed in this blog for the last two hymns. I find the poetry rather artful and resourceful in teaching truths (despite the occasional departure from the rhythmic structure or pattern of the meter). And this kind of language is certainly found in many hymns not of our tradition. :-)

This could be a somewhat more difficult hymn to tackle, especially for the individual who received a calling to play the organ without much by way of formal training. It could be daunting to approach playing the opening measures of the first two stanzas with feet alone. I don’t think it inappropriate at all to play it in the left hand, rather than the pedal, adding the pedal when the soprano and alto come in. If you have nimble feet, you can definitely experiment with performing this on pedal, but make sure you have a nice, bright registration that is not too heavy, or it comes out very muddy. Again I would use a principal chorus to mixture, and maybe add a softer chorus reed for the final verse.

Registration Starting Point:
Great: Principal 8’, 4’, 2’, Mixture (either this one or the one in the swell, whichever is lower-pitched)
Swell: Principal 8’, 4’, 2’, Flute 8’ if needed
Pedal: Principal 16’, 8’, 4’, Mixture, Bourdon 16’, Flute 8’, 16’ Reed (?)
Sw/Gt, Sw/Ped

Possible Final Verse Additions:
Great: Mixture
Swell: Mixture, Hautbois 8(?)
Pedal: 16’ Reed