What Is the Highest Form of Hymn Writing?

What Is the Highest Form of Hymn Writing?

Hymn #26 -- Joseph Smith's First Prayer

Text: George Manwaring (1854-1889; LDS)
Music: Sylvanus Billings Pond (1792-1871);
     adapted by A.C. Smyth (1840-1909; LDS)
Tune name: DIVINITY

What makes a perfect hymn? 

Surely there are many possible answers to this subjective question.

For me, since a hymn is first and foremost a message delivered in a text, and since the point of a hymn is to inspire and edify a congregation, the text itself seems like the most important part. But there's also the matter of providing music that, when the text is that highest form of communication, doesn't get in the way of the text, but enhances it, elevates it, communicates the message in a deeply meaningful way. Often, that means the music needs to be on the simpler side. But what then is the highest form of hymn text? The kind that lends itself to such high-level communication? 

I believe that the best hymn texts tell an important and complete story. Storytelling is SO powerful. Why else would the movie industry be so enormous? We all LOVE stories. We pay good money to watch them, hear them, experience them. We sign up for monthly memberships, we buy overpriced popcorn and soda, we get a babysitter so we can go sit in a dark theater eating junk just to be able to experience a good story. Sometimes they're not even that good. Storytelling is perhaps the most powerful form of communication. It makes the message stick. What a great strategy for hymn writing, especially when we want to get an important religious principle or concept or story across to a congregation. 

Can you think of a hymn in our hymnal that tells a more complete story that "Joseph Smith's First Prayer"? I can't. A person who didn't know anything about Joseph Smith could read these 4 verses and know exactly what the First Vision was all about.

What a great missionary tool. I wish we had more hymns like this that tell a full story. Music can soften the blow sometimes. And when a message is so bold, like this one, to the point of turning some people off just at the mention of it, music can help overcome that barrier. 

Karen Davidson points out in her book "Our Latter-Day Hymns" that the first version of the text was not as polished as what we have now. It was first published in the "Juvenile Instructor" and the editors must have worked with George Manwaring to improve his original version. Here's the first version of the first verse.

'Twas on a lovely morn in spring
The sun was shining bright,
When Joseph saw the woodland shade
And humbly kneeling there he prayed
For wisdom and for light.

Hmm, not quite as elegant as the final version. I'm so glad Manwaring was open to suggestions and revisions. Frankly, I get super annoyed when composers and poets won't take advice or comments from others who want the best for them and have good ideas about how to improve their work. If any of my compositions are any good, it is not because I left them in their "first draft" state. It is because I shared them with others, especially performers, got feedback, re-worked the piece, sometimes putting it through many revisions. Every time I do this the piece is the better for it. Usually MUCH better. 

Ok, let's get into the music of this hymn.

Like some of the Classic hymns we've looked at to this point, we have here another favorite hymn constructed with extremely simple musical building blocks. In the whole hymn, there are 60 chords, counting each chord on every syllable of the text. Here's a break down of the different chords used.

  • The 1 chord -- 24 times

  • The 5 chord -- 30 times

  • The 4 chord -- 4 times (all in the same measure, the 3rd to last bar)

  • The 3 chord -- 1 time, very briefly

  • The 5 of 5 chord -- 1 time

That's just about as simple as you can get when it comes to harmony. But the truth is, though this is one of the most important stories we tell the world, it's a simple one. Joseph Smith saw God the Father and Jesus Christ, His Son. It's not complicated. It's beautifully simple. The heavens were open again. God spoke to His living prophet once again. It's not complicated. You could say it's far fetched, and many have/do. But it's not complicated. The harmony matches the message. Why complicate things?

Ok, well, what about the melody?

If the harmony is so simple, there must be something to keep our attention through 4 verses, even if it's a compelling story. The only remaining option is the melody.


Line 1. The tune starts low in the register, almost at the bottom. The first figure sets a precedent of passing tones that continues through the piece. The first of them is a double passing tone on the word "how." The E-flat and the C step between chord tones from B-flat and D up to D and F. The double passing tones happen again on the "-diant" or "Radiant" later in this line. The other common figure is 3 repeated notes followed by a leap up, 2 repeated notes, and a step down. First, this happens in the 1st full measure. F-F-F leaps up to B-flat-B-flat and steps down to A. This happens again in the 3rd measure, C-C-C with a leap up to high E-flat, another E-flat, then a step down to D. It's a lovely sense of symmetry. The other bit that works well in this first line is the rising up from the low D all the way up to the high E-flat and D by the end of the line. Joseph's prayers ascend up to heaven with the melody filled with contemplative repeated notes and downward step-wise resolutions.

Line 2. As expected, line 2 begins the same as line 1 but the 2nd half is altered to lead us toward a pause on the 5 chord, the half-way point of the hymn. And here we have 2 of our "single use" chords. We get the 3 chord and the 5 of 5 chord. Brief changes form the steady 1 chord and 5 chord harmonies all around.


Line 3. We expect something different after the pause on the 5 chord at the end of line 2. We start with the same rhythm, the dotted eighth and sixteenth figure. But now in unison. Everyone sings an F. We leap up to the C and step down the 5 chord until the end of "woodland." Then it happens again, nearly identically. Unison F's, leap up to the C, stepping down the 5 chord, but now we leap way back up to the high D on a 1 chord. Quick side note: this pause on the 1 chord on the word "love" has a doubled 3rd. Usually when you have a 1 chord, you try to double the root of the chord, the B-flat. If you can't double that note, which can occur for various reasons, the next choice is to double the 5th, the F. But if that still doesn't work, which can happen, then you have to double the 3rd of the chord, the D. And that's what's occurred here. We definitely want the high D because that's the melody and it's giving us a pre-climax which we don't want to change. So, why did the composer write another D in the alto? Because in the previous chord, the Alto was singing an E-flat which is the 7th of the 5 chord, the dominant seventh chord. And that 7th MUST resolve down, otherwise it will cause all kinds of problems. So, the only choice is to let the E-flat step down to the D. This is fine. The voice leading took the alto there naturally. So, no error. 

Line 4. Now the question is, will the composer return to the same basic tune as Line 1? Or, will he do something different? He starts with the same figure as line 1 with the double passing tones. But then we get a lovely leap back up to high D and eighth note leaps on the notes of the 1 chord, D-B-flat-F-D. This leaping around ends its leaping on the one instance where we get the 4 chord, the 3rd to last measure, the E-flat chord. It's that nostalgic, shepherd kind of sound. And since the composer held it back for the whole hymn until right at this ending moment, it feels very nice and warm. It's like the Spirit giving us that special feeling that what we're hearing and singing about is real, that it gives peace, that it rings true. The last 2 bars follow the example of the 1st half of line 4, but in a more "final cadence" way. We step back up to the high B-flat on the word "Jo-seph" as was done in line 1, but now we use the same descending leaping on the notes of the 1 chord that we used at the start of line 1 to get us all the way down to the low B-flat where the hymn resolves and closes.

The melody is the key to the freshness in this hymn. It sustains our emotions right until the end. To keep our attention melodically with so few harmonic choices underneath is an example of excellent melody writing. And to top it off, it tells the story clearly and, most important of all, it's memorable. The tune sticks in your head which makes the message stick in your head too, giving it a much better chance of making its way down to our hearts. Wonderful!

I think we sometimes get tired of this hymn. But I think it's wonderful. It's a MUST KEEP for the new hymnal. And I hope it will serve as a HOW TO for many more hymn writers.

Stay tuned tomorrow for another funeral dirge turned peppy prophet pleaser!

Have a great weekend!


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Commentary from "The Bench Warmer"

by Jason Gunnell, Organist

I love the message and testimony of this hymn, teaching the truth that the Prophet Joseph did in reality see and speak with the Father and the Savior. I think it tremendously important to have these kinds of hymns in our lexicon that teach such important truths and testify of such tremendous events that ushered in the restoration of the gospel. I also think the tune is a wonderful vehicle to transmit this message. Crawford Gates arranged this hymn for vocal solo and I think it would be tremendously worthwhile to look it up and find it! James Kasen also has a very fine arrangement for women’s chorus.

I find that this hymn goes very well at about quarter note equal to 102 beats per minute. I have always found the instruction “with dignity” in our book somewhat puzzling. Some of the hymns with this marking are rather big hymns that would be registered with a large registration (A Mighty Fortress is our God, for example), while others deserve a much more reserved approach. This hymn to me falls in the latter category. I would be more reserved in my registration, maybe starting with principals 8’ and 4’, building to a 2’ registration at the end, but never adding mixtures.

Registration Starting Point:
Great: Principal 8’, 4’, Flute 8’
Swell: Principal 8’, Flute 8’, 4’ (experiment with Flute 2’?)
Pedal: Principal 16’, 8’, Bourdon 16’, Flute 8’
Sw/Gt, Sw/Ped

Possible Final Verse Additions:
Great: Principal 2’