A Lazy Hymn-Lullaby that Misses the Mark

A Lazy Hymn-Lullaby that Misses the Mark

Hymn #99 — “Nearer, Dear Savior, to Thee”

Text: Joseph L. Townsend (1849-1942; LDS)
Music: William Clayson (1840-1887; LDS)
Tune name: LINDSAY

The sentiment in Hymn #99 is beautiful. But the music falls short.

The atmosphere is calm and lullaby-ish, which I like.

The opening lines are not bad. I’d say they are between average and good. I was hoping things would improve in line 3. That the music would take me to more interesting places.

Unfortunately, line 3 is mundane and repetitive to the point of boredom.

I think line 4 could be interesting, but it takes the repetitive harmonic format from line 3 and continues it. I think the tune of that 4th line is nice and has a big climactic moment. But the harmony just stays in one place for too long.

Harmonically speaking, this hymn is kind of a lazy lullaby.

The text talks about the desire to be closer to God. And the repetition of “nearer, nearer” seems to indicate that this is a strong desire.

The composer’s job is to tap that yearning and make us feel it, even if we don’t yet have the desire to be “nearer.” A successful hymn with this text should cultivate that desire within us and make us, by the end, match the yearning sentiment of the text writer.

The main tool in accomplishing this task is harmonic language. But the kind of harmony used in this hymn does not conjure any yearning at all.

It’s kind of an “all is well” kind of harmony. Lots of 1 chord, lots of 4 chord, lots of 5 chord with some rolling, rocking rhythms.

Where’s the yearning? Think about when you yearn for something. Those feelings come from a place of pain or loss or neglect. Something is wrong. There’s a problem. There’s a hole you’ve fallen in. There’s a separation. Like a child leaving home for the first time. He or she has never been away from the security of their parents company, their bedroom, their typical surroundings, their comfort zone. They feel the pain of separation. They yearn to return.

The harmony in a hymn, and in any kind of music, can create those feelings of pain and soothing, or tension and release, of yearning and nurturing. But it requires some other chords, often chromatic chords. Or if you want to stay to the main diatonic chords (the ones that belong to the key signature), you have to set them in a way that we feel tension.

We saw this in Hymn #97. The delayed cadences, the multi-note syllables, the leaning into tendency tones that resolve only after sitting and thinking about the tension they cause, all these things create the yearning I’m looking for in the harmony.

There are other chords that add fuel to the yearning fire. You can slip in the lowered 6th scale degree in places and make a 4 chord a minor 4 chord. Or a minor 2 chord a diminished 2 chord. Or you can bridge the whole-step gap between the 4 chord and 5 chord with a diminished chord built on the raised 4th scale degree. Diminished chords are full of yearning. And when you delay the resolution, they are all the more powerful.

So, the verdict for me is, “guilty” of trying to depict yearning without actually writing any notes that display yearning. We’ve missed the mark with this hymn.

Better luck next time.

See you tomorrow!


P.S. The harmonic toolbox I talked about in this post is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m going into great detail in Part 3 of my Practical Guide to Hymn and Primary Song Writing. It’s in the works now and will be available in the near future. If you’d like to be sure you’re notified when it’s ready to go, click the big green button below and sign up.

P.P.S. If you’ve not yet subscribed to these posts, click the button below and I’ll send you my free guide, “9 Ingredients of Great Hymn Writing” which has a section all about harmony.

Commentary from “The Bench Warmer”

by Jason Gunnell, Organist

The previous two wonderful hymns begin a section of our hymnal of hymns that are very subjective and introspective in nature. I find Lead, Kindly Light and I Need Thee Every Hour to be very wonderful examples of effective hymns in this nature, but we now come to several hymns that I do not think have nearly the same quality, efficacy, or attributes of good hymns as those two.

As I have been thinking about my remarks for this hymn over the last day after completing my remarks for yesterday’s hymn, I have been racking my brain to think of a hymn in compound meter that I think is very effective or good. I always reserve the right to be wrong and/or corrected, but I cannot think of a hymn that I think is outstanding in a compound meter. This song is a good example of the difficulties of congregational singing in compound meter, which include keeping a good tempo, keeping correct time (it’s too easy to fudge note values, making them too long or too short…), avoiding the swinging feeling that compound meter encourages, and being of a nature to encourage unified singing (staying together especially).

In addition to the difficulties of the tune and music strengthening congregational singing, I don’t find the text has the same devotional or, I struggle to find the right words sometimes, impact maybe?, quality of the previous two texts of the same nature. Perhaps this is something that is only personal, but I don’t find these types of texts moving in the same way as hymns that are more subjective or having the same power. Or at least the context to me is much narrower in which these hymns are effective. And corporate worship to me is not generally the right context for this song to find proper effectiveness. But perhaps I am being too hard or injecting too many personal opinions into my review… In any event, I find this to be much more of a song than a hymn, and find its use to be much more of a personal or devotional song than a congregational hymn.

The upper end of the suggested tempo is probably where I would reside for this song, but this reemphasizes the dangers of compound meter, going fast enough to not have it drag, especially the dotted quarter notes, but then when it goes fast enough not to drag, the quarter note-eighth note figure really swings, and then it is not at all in the nature of a hymn, but a song. My registration would be like the previous devotional hymns.

Registration Starting Point:
Great: Principal 8’, Flute 8’
Swell: Principal 8’, Flute 8’, 4’
Pedal: Principal 16’, 8’, Bourdon 16’, Flute 8’
Sw/Gt, Sw/Ped

Possible Final Verse Additions:
Swell: Flute 2’