The Albus Dumbledore School of Hymn Composition
Text: Naomi W. Randall (b. 1908; LDS)
Music: Stephen M. Jones (b. 1960; LDS)
Tune name: WENDY
Today we take a look at a hymn by a living Latter-day Saint composer. None other than Dr. Stephen Jones, professor of composition, and former Dean of the School of Performing Arts at BYU (I think I got that title right…sorry if I didn’t, Stephen…).
Though he’s a generation ahead of me, we both earned our masters and doctoral degrees at the same school (University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music) and studied with the same teacher (Dr. Joel Hoffman).
Stephen is a fantastic composer! His works have been performed by many major ensembles around the world including the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, the Utah Symphony, and many others. He is also a former Stake President.
When his lovely hymn, #128, was published in 1985, he was only 25 years old. He was off to a great start.
I really like his hymn. The only downer for me is that it has only 1 verse. I wonder if this is why we don’t hear it very often in Sacrament meetings?
There are many layers of communication involved in the art of composition. When a text is involved, we get another couple layers, at least. And when the text is intended for use in a worship service, we add yet more layers. For this reason, it is for me, one of the most challenging, yet most reward types of composition. It’s easy to write big complicated music. It’s much harder to write music that is meant to be voiced by a congregation of many different ability levels and be music that moves them emotionally, spiritually, and is music that is appealing, singable, a delight to hear, uplifting, etc., etc.
Every note send of emotional signals. Every note attaches to a word in a phrase that is intended to elicit a feeling in the singer or hearer. This reminds me of something Albus Dumbledore said in the 7th Harry Potter book.
“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.”
So true! But then there’s the tone of voice that adds another layer to the power of words. Tone can completely alter a series of words. Try saying a phrase with different tones of voice and see how quickly it changes the meaning.
Music can take the “inexhaustible source of magic” created by the words we say or sing, give them a tone of voice, and then attach to it an emotion. That sounds simple, but how easy is it to describe your emotions exactly? It’s terribly difficult to convey the precise feeling or motivation or yearning one feels inside with words alone. That’s where music comes into play.
So when a composer sits down to put musical notes to a sacred text meant for worship, the composer is not just a craftsman, he or she becomes an influencer, a marketer, a persuader, a psychologist, a prognosticator, a soothe sayer, an alchemist. The baroque composers understood this implicitly. They called it, the Doctrine of Affections.
To quote Dumbledore again, this time from Harry Potter book 1…
“Ah music,” he said, wiping his eyes. “A magic beyond all we do here!”
Stephen Jones understands this and knows how to use these tools. I’ll let him tell you about his process, his ideas, his alchemy.
“The opening lines express faith and confidence in the Lord’s love. Here the repeated, stable bass gives the music a solid, foundational beginning. The modulation in the second phrase lifts the music, depicting the ‘inner strength and peace of mind’ found through the Holy Ghost.
“The third phrase is the only one that does not begin with a solid, foundational bass. Here the bass and soprano move outward, opening the sound of the music and depicting the act of giving the Father our trust, prayers, and humility. The highest note in the melody occurs in this phrase, perhaps indicating a reaching out to God with the willingness spoken of in the text.
“The last phrase ends in the long note values, suggesting the endurance we need to show in exercising our faith.”
For those who are writing hymns, I recommend careful study of this hymn. Pay close attention to the balance between consonant tones and dissonant tones. Hear their gravity. Study how the harmony subtly enhances the gravity of the melodic tension and resolve.
I vote that we sing Stephen’s beautiful a whole lot more! And, I vote that we add some more verses. It’s a beauty. It’s a keeper. It’s a great example of a hymn that does what a hymn should do, it moves the congregation to feel, to see, to act. Great work, Stephen!
That’s all for today!
Commentary from “The Bench Warmer”
by Jason Gunnell, Organist
This is a hymn that I am rather lukewarm about. The text is okay, and the music is okay, thus making a serviceable hymn, even if it doesn’t stir in me the type of reaction that other hymns in our survey have. Again, this may have to do with my preference for objective hymns. This hymn, being in first person and more relating to a feeling or response to a point of doctrine is more subjective, rather than expounding upon the doctrine itself.
Karen Davidson relates the words of the tune’s composer. “The opening lines express faith and confidence in the Lord’s love. Here the repeated, stable bass gives the music a solid, foundational beginning. The modulation in the second phrase lifts the music, depiction the ‘inner strength and peace of mind’ found through the Holy Ghost. The third phrase is the only one that does not begin with a solid, foundational bass. Here the bass and soprano move outward, opening the sound of the music and depicting the act of giving the Father our trust, prayers, and humility. The highest note in the melody occurs in this phrase, perhaps indicating a reaching out to God with the willingness spoken of in the text. The last phrase ends in long note values, suggesting the endurance we need to show in exercising our faith.”
This hymn and its explanation of tune I think is much in line with what Doug is looking for or describing when he discusses the tunes and their relation to the text, but I am not always convinced of the musical elements actually conveying a specific point. I can appreciate the words of the composer and his intentions, however, I don’t know that I would identify these aspects without the explicit definition or explanation. But I readily acknowledge that this explanation might ring true or recognizable for others.
I think the tune moves along nicely a bit faster than the suggested tempo. I find that I play this hymn around 96 beats per minute. I would also disregard the fermata in the middle. I find it disruptive to the forward motion of the text and tune and that just a slight acknowledgement of the phrase ending is enough, rather than treating it as a dotted half note. Treating it as if there were a tenuto mark there I think works much better that a pause or cessation of the pulse. I would use a quiet registration similar to many of the recent hymns.
Registration Starting Point:
Great: Principal 8’, Flute 8’, 4’
Swell: Principal 8’, Flute 8’, 4’, 2’, String 8’
Pedal: Subbass 16’, Bourdon 16’, Flute 8’