A Courtly Hymn-Dance for the King
Hymn #117 — “Come Unto Jesus”
Text and music: Orson Pratt Huish (1851-1932; LDS)
Tune name: NIBLET
Whenever I hear this hymn, I picture an 18th century royal ballroom filled with powdered wigs and corsets.
If the tempo stays on the slow side of the spectrum, it feels nice and elegant. If it’s the least bit rushed, it starts to feel silly.
On the hymn vs song scale, this one seems more on the song side than the hymn side, especially with a faster tempo.
None of this is “bad” per se, but it doesn’t seem to fit the mood of the text very well. “Heavy laden,” “careworn,” “fainting” and “oppressed” by sin.
I suppose the 2nd half is a little less unfitting. “He’ll safely guide you unto that haven.” That’s certainly more cheerful. But I’m not sure it brings a dance flavor to my mind.
If I had been presented with this text and asked to compose a hymn, I would not think right away of a rollicking, triple meter. I would try to portray the “heavy laden, careworn and fainting, by sin oppressed.”
A more 4/4 or 3/4 meter seems appropriate. But then, the real feeling would come by means of the harmony.
The harmony in this hymn is entirely standard. 1 chords, 4 chords and 5 chords. That’s it. I think it deserves a lot more color. The composer missed an opportunity. But as he wrote the text himself, perhaps that’s the issue. Who knows.
We’ve seen lots of interesting kinds of harmony in these analysis that would match this text much more accurately and emotionally.
I don’t mind creating a courtly dance-like piece in praise of the King of Kings, but the text should match.
For these reasons, I’m lukewarm about this hymn. I think it will probably remain in the hymnal because it is a favorite of many. But I can think many more convincing hymns that invite us to come to Jesus. Hymns that sell the benefits of coming to Jesus; His healing ability, His grace, the change that occurs from dark to like, from crimson red to snow white. If a hymn is a sales pitch—and it is, we’re selling the gospel—this is rather bland sales piece. It’s all features. No benefits. Almost no emotion.
That’s all for today. Have a good one!
P.S. Don’t forget to subscribe. When you do, you’ll get a copy of my free report, “9 Ingredients of Great Hymn Writing.” Click the button below to subscribe and get your download.
Commentary from “The Bench Warmer”
by Jason Gunnell, Organist
I think my comments today on this song may be brief, as, though there is strong appeal for this song as one of the few in the canon that is well-known and done often, I don’t care for it too much. This hymn joins a few others that have recently been reviewed that because of the compound meter give it the swinging sensation that is characteristic of a song, and not a hymn. The repeat of the last part of the phrase at the end of the song also makes it much more song-like than a hymn. The text is a decent enough text, but there isn’t too much about this song that for me is worthy of note.
Due to the compound meter and the swinging feeling, I think one must take special consideration to keep the pulse steady and not slow down. The natural inclination of a swing is to slow down and ultimately stop unless external force is provided for it. The organist here must provide the external forward momentum, or it will slow to a stop. I think keeping the tempo at the upper range of the suggestion here is a good tempo to be at. This song also provides an example of where a fermata is a frustrating sign for me, as it is indeterminate how long it should be held, and therefore is almost always held too long. A tenuto mark here might have been much better served, as even elongating that note an extra beat feels too long, let along more.
Registration Starting Point:
Great: Principal 8’, Flute 8’
Swell: Principal 8’, Flute 8’, 4’, String 8’
Pedal: Subbass 16’, Bourdon 16’, Flute 8’
Possible Final Verse Additions:
Great: Flute 4’
Swell: Flute 2’