A Soothing Hymn in the Heat of Battle
Text: Katharina von Schlegel (b. 1697);
translated by Jane Borthwick (1813-1897)
Music: Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Tune name: FINLANIA
Not many hymns come from the traditional Symphonic repertoire.
I think Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” appears in some hymnals, though not in ours.
But I’m hard pressed to think of any other famous hymns hymns that appeared first in a piece for large orchestra.
“Be Still My Soul” is the middle section of a great, Nationalist piece of music by Finland’s greatest composer, Jean Sibelius.
The opening of the piece is very robust. It sounds as if war is coming. Dark clouds brood over the landscape of snarly trombones and roaring timpani.
After this initial throat clearing, we’re off to the war charge. Chariots and horses and swords a spears. It gets pretty exciting and pretty intense.
After this initial battle, there’s a shift if perspective. The forward motion continues. The tempo is quick. The battle still rages. But over the top of the forward thrust comes a heavenly hymn. A comfort during the battle. A balm in the heat of war.
The tune we know as “Be Still My Soul” comforts the warriors as they continue to fight for their country. The adrenaline continues to surge, but the heart is calmed and the spirits are lifted.
This is the context of this hymn.
When I hear this hymn played or sung at a ridiculously slow tempo, as it usually is, I can hardly stand it. It’s such a great hymn. Yet it gets completely butchered at the typical snail’s pace.
It needs to be conducted in 2. It should have been scored with a 2/2 time signature instead of a 4/4 marking. The metronome marking should read With Spirit, Half note = ca. 56.
The genius of this hymn is its rhythm. When it’s taken at an appropriate tempo, the hymn lifts off and soars into graceful flight. The syncopated entries, the dotted quarter eighth figure, followed by another syncopation on the long notes. The bumping up against the beat that’s created is completely lost at a slower, plodding tempo. And poor, brilliant Sibelius turns in his grave.
Thy rhythm is not complicated, but it’s off set just enough from the norm, that it makes for a delicious musical experience. And you get a sense of the forward motion of battle. And isn’t life a battle? Don’t we need a heavenly rallying cry to aid us in the day to day battle of life while we’re zooming on our figurative horse and combating life’s challenges? YES, WE DO!
So please, don’t take the tempo slow ever again. It destroys the essence of this music.
Another wonderful element is the simple tune. It doesn’t do anything wild melodic acrobatics as some other interesting tunes. Instead, it keeps to a very small range. But what’s brilliant about it is the lack of Do in almost the entire melody. Only a few times does the tune actually land on an F, the 1st scale degree. And when it does, in most cases, it’s mid-phrase and in camino to the next syncopated cadence.
Keeping the tune hovering around Me (the A) and Sol (the high C) add to the “up in the air” feel of the hymn. It’s afloat most of the time and only touches solid ground at the very last minute.
Lastly, the bass line creates a 2nd melody which is almost as interesting as the main melody. It accompanies it in a very satisfying and singable way.
All of these things combine to create a hymn built by keeping an eye on the altimeter gauge. It’s the kind of hymn that was composed not to follow rules or frameworks. It is a vignette into real life, with real lift off, with real tension and release build into the rhythm and flow, instead of relying on harmony alone. It’s is an excellent slice of a fine symphonic work turned into a powerful hymn. But don’t forget where it comes from. Try to keep it in context. That’s where it works it’s magic best.
That’s all for today. Have a good one!
Commentary from “The Bench Warmer”
by Jason Gunnell, Organist
This is another sublime hymn that benefits by being set to one of the most beautiful melodies written by Jean Sibelius. The text is very poignant and speaks of a plea for the stilling of our souls in times of grief and pain. There is a fourth verse of the English translation omitted from our hymnal that seeks for solace in the departing of dearest friends, making this hymn even more appropriate for funerals.
The tune comes from the Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius’ tone poem, Finlandia. It is instrumental in nature, but pairs excellently with this translated text. Because of its instrumental nature and the length of the melodic lines, it can be somewhat difficult to pull off well for congregational singing. It is therefore imperative that the tempo of the hymn be such that the long lines are singable without dragging. Thinking of this hymn in 2 goes a long way in aiding in keeping the motion moving forward. A tempo of half note equal to around 56 beats per minute I find to be a good tempo to encourage forward momentum.
Another difficult characteristic of this tune is that the phrases begin on the weak beat immediately after the downbeat. This can be somewhat difficult to navigate and make clear for the congregation to sing. This is where I think Mack Wilberg’s arrangement for choir is brilliant and could aid very well in approaching how to accompany this hymn for congregational singing. What Brother Wilberg so brilliantly does is put something on the downbeat that aids in the motion of the hymn and feeling comfortable knowing where the next phrase begins. So on the downbeat at the beginning of the hymn, he has a I chord and then the voices come in. At the downbeats immediately before each phrase entrance, he has a harmonic movement or some other way to emphasis the downbeat and provide a great roadmap for the congregation to come in on the next phrase. I highly recommend studying and analyzing his arrangement to find ideas on how to lead the congregational singing for this hymn. I shamelessly admit that I borrow his harmonic language when I play this hymn, especially on the final verse, but choose to highlight the downbeats preceding each phrase entrance as well. I think it is a great solution to the bit of puzzle this hymn tune presents. I would again use a more subtle registration, ensuring that I have a very strong and broad 8’ line.
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’ ?