A Testimony and a (Warning!) Soapbox
Text: Gordon B. Hinckley (1910-2007; LDS)
Music: G. Homer Durham (1911-1985; LDS)
Tune name: EUDORA
One of my favorite General Conference talks of all time is President Hinckley’s “My Testimony” from the April 2000 conference, Sunday morning session.
I was a new missionary in Chile listening to the prophet bear an incredible testimony. It moved me so deeply. I bought the cassette tapes (remember those?) and listened to this talk over and over again through the rest of my mission. I could practically recite it word for word.
Just the sound of his voice, when I hear it now, brings me back to that time in my life. President Hinckley was my prophet. I followed him again and again during all those years of huge decisions about college, vocation, avocation, marriage, etc.
Hymn #135 is a little talisman reminder of my prophet. And like him, it doesn’t beat around the bush. It gets straight to the point.
I love the bold melody, the big leap at the beginning, the forward motion of the dotted quarter-eighths, and the quick marching tempo (at least it’s quick when I play it… the tempo marking is too slow…).
The harmony has a handful G#s, C#s. This adds some intensity to the sound and gives it a flavor of the old Protestant hymns, which I love.
The only part I’m not impressed with is the blaring parallel 5th and octave across the 2nd bar line. It’s really too bad that this one slipped in. It’s a very easy fix that keeps all the harmony in tact.
All I’ve done is re-voice the chord on “my” in the first bar to prepare the inner voices in a slightly lower range. This makes the poorly written parallel motion go away.
I’m sure it’s no small thing to suggest a change to a hymn written by a Prophet with music by a General Authority. But I wish the committee would do it anyway. We’ll see.
WARNING! Soap Box Moment
This brings up a bit of a sore spot for me. There’s this pervasive nonchalance with regard to much of the music the Church publishes nowadays.
For example. I was invited to accompany some singers at the General Young Men’s Presidency’s annual Christmas Dinner. It’s happening tonight. One of the pieces the organizer asked me to play is from the 2018 Mutual Album. It’s called “The Body of Christ.”
Now, I have nothing against the composer personally, but the music is sub-par at best. It’s full of power chords, no 3rds in many of the chords, and blatant parallel 5ths and octaves all over the place.
I realize we’re in the 21st century and all that, but come on. This is just lazy, uneducated writing. Not that you have to have a degree to write a song for the church. Not at all. But the editors who publish these songs have a responsibility to help the writers fill the gaps in their songs.
Another example—and I’m sure I’ll get some flack for saying this—is the new favorite Primary song “Gethsemane.” It’s a beautiful message. The best! I LOVE that my kids can’t get it out of their heads. I love that it's in a minor mode and you get the real feeling for the Atonement of the Lord. But the piano part is so poorly written. It’s incredibly incorrect all over the place.
The songwriters of both of these songs would fail 1st semester freshman music theory. They would fail high school music theory. They would fail grade school piano lesson theory.
Again, I don’t really blame them. I blame the editors at the Church office building who agree to publish these pieces with all the problems in the writing. Come on! Let’s help these song writers, who were inspired to share their testimony through music. We can chat with them and help them improve the piece. I could spend an hour with the composer of “Gethsemane” and help him or her (I honestly don’t have any idea what their name is, but I wish them very well and thank them for their inspired song) and help them SO SO SO much to make a truly beautiful song WAY WAY WAY better by following some basic principles of proper voice leading.
“Oh, Dr. Pew…” I can hear some people saying… “you’re being to academic, you’re being too hard on them, you’re too old school…”
Look, we have incredibly high standards in the Church when it comes to our doctrine, our training manuals, our teaching manuals, our temple building, the paintings within the temples (which, by the way, are painted by artists who use the basic principles of the great masters to create their works of art that help us worship). Why are we so lazy and lax with the music? We can do WAY better. It’s really not that hard. I just takes a little extra effort and help. Take the Tabernacle organists for example. Every one of them has a doctorate in music. They can’t even apply for that job unless they have, or are about to finish their doctorates. Those are incredibly high standards. Surely we could ask the chairman of the music committee, who also has a doctorate in music, to work with the inspired songwriters who submit pieces to the church.
Ok… I’ll stop. I just think we can do better. We can raise the bar. We do everywhere else. Why not in music? I’m not at all saying we should do away with these songs. I’m saying that we need to improve them so they aren’t filled with errors and sub-par writing.
Well, that’s all for today. I’m sure I just offended someone. Oh well. I heard a wise man say “if you haven’t offended someone by lunch time every day, you’re not trying hard enough.”
Have a good one!
Commentary from “The Bench Warmer”
by Jason Gunnell, Organist
President Hinckley was the prophet of my youth and early adulthood. He became president of the church when I was 14 and passed away when I was almost 27. That is some of the most impactful times a a persons growing-up years. Therefore I look upon his words and works with great fondness. Such is our fondness for President Hinckley that our second son’s first name is Gordon. I love that we have a wonderful and powerful hymn bearing testimony of the savior by President Hinckley.
I love this story as it relates to the tune for this text: “When President Hinckley first heard Elder G. Homer Durham’s hymn tune, without knowing the name of the composer, he felt it was just the kind of direct, simple tune he had hoped for. When he learned the composer’s identity, he was even more pleased. The two men had been lifelong friends, from grade school through college and mission days and beyond.” That is from Sister Davidson, and I would encourage you to read the entire entry for this hymn (and get the book. It should be in everyone’s library!).
Hymns become great such as this when both the text and the tune are powerful examples of excellent hymn composition. The suggested tempo is too slow for this text and tune. To maintain the great integrity of this hymn, a tempo around 104-108 beats per minute is recommended here. A strong registration is also advised. Here is a wonderful rendering of this hymn: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOz1VWkdJ_U
Registration Starting Point:
Great: Principal 8’, 4’, 2’, Mixture
Swell: Principal 8’, 4’, 2’, Flute 8’, String 8’, Mixture, Hautbois 8’
Pedal: Principal 16’, 8’, 4’, Bourdon 16’, Flute 8’, 16’ Reed
Possible Final Verse Additions:
Great: Mixture, Trumpet 8’
Swell: Mixture, Bassoon 16’
Pedal: 32’ Flue and Reed, Heavy Reed 16’