Last Sunday we had stake conference and I was asked to conduct the choir. This conference was my first opportunity to use a recently composed arrangement: a few months ago I arranged Did You Think to Pray for soprano solo, but once the arrangement is worked out – which verses, any repetition, any textual variation, modulations, and especially the accompaniment – adapting it for other ensembles is relatively quick and easy. So I took this opportunity to adapt it for SATB choir. You can see the score here, and listen to the arrangement at this link.
Mary Ann Kidder was a contemporary of Joseph Smith, born in the spring of 1820 at the very time of his First Vision, and married in 1844, the year of his death. Her husband Ellis was a publisher, providing an outlet for her talents as a poet. Ellis died of dysentery in the Civil War, a Union soldier in his 40’s. Mary’s patriotic song Victory At Last was sung at the formal flag raising ceremony at Fort Sumpter at the end of the war. That same year her 12-year-old son drowned, so Mary knew moments when her “heart was full of sorrow”. Did You Think to Pray was written a decade after that sad year (published in 1875 when Mary was 55). William Perkins certainly composed the music specifically for this text, as the form is unique and not one of the common hymn meters (with a rhyme scheme like a Limerick).
I love to consider the doctrine contained in hymns, sometimes expressed more directly than any scripture you could find (for example, “Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven”.) In Did You Think to Pray we learn that prayer should be a daily habit; that we pray in the name of Jesus, that prayer can form a shield and protection throughout the day; that prayer is key in repentance and forgiving others; that prayer is a comfort in sorrow, can “change the night to day”. Not unusual doctrine, but good reminders and advice.
There is an additional verse (not included in my arrangement) that I wish had been included in our hymn book. It goes as follows:
When you met with great temptation, / Did you think to pray? / By His dying love and merit, / Did you claim the Holy Spirit / As your guide and stay?
As the Lord’s Prayer says, “Suffer us not to be led into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Indeed, by the power of the Atonement, prayer brings the Holy Spirit which sanctifies us and strengthens us against temptation.
The hardest, most time consuming part of arranging is the accompaniment, generally: I believe in finely detailed accompaniments. Often the accompanist is one of the most skilled musicians in the ward/stake and you can take advantage of that fact by making the accompaniment special while keeping the choir parts relatively easy. This also has the advantage of allowing the choir to focus on beautiful tone, dynamics and diction, instead of notes, which will greatly enhance the resulting music-making. I was blessed with an especially talented pianist for this conference choir. You can see my score here and listen here.
For this hymn I used a tranquil, two-note undulation in the right hand to express the peaceful nature of prayer. At the opening I use the second inversion of the tonic, with V (B-flat) in the bass, which gives a nice suspended effect to the harmony, which comes to rest at the end of the verse, helping propel the motion forward for the second verse. I decided to skip the refrain for this verse so it didn’t become too repetitive. Sometimes it’s best to abbreviate a hymn like this to avoid any feeling of redundancy. My accompaniment pattern for the second verse is a simple variation, introducing a four-note undulation.
In the refrain I introduce one major variation to the melody (generally you don’t mess with the melody without a compelling reason) lowering the phrase “when life gets dark and dreary” by a third and using the lowered 6th scale degree on “dreary” – a little word painting. It took a bit of repetition before the choir felt natural with this change, but it turned out very well.
Speaking of the choir, the first two verses are in unison – women, then men. They only break into four parts for the refrain, returning to unison for the altered “dreary” phrase, and I give them a lovely, extended resolution of the final cadence (they loved singing these). I used to write four part wall to wall, but then I discovered the power and beauty of unison singing. It’s very effective to alternate between unison and four-part textures, and those unison passages can be emotionally powerful.
The third verse is set for a female soloist (it’s always good to give your more talented singers a chance to shine). The accompaniment is a free counter melody that could be adapted for a solo soprano instrument very effectively. I found the melody worked over an accompaniment in the relative minor (C minor here) and really expresses well the pathos of a “heart full of sorrow”. The hopeful refrain, that “praying rests the weary” is set to a gentle 1.5-beat arpeggiation high in the piano, with the left hand playing a canon to the women’s unison melody.
I have always loved a good ending. For me, the closing measures of a piece can be one of the most satisfying musical experiences. In this hymn I employed a technique I sometimes use: quoting another related hymn. The meter switches to 3/4 and the piano plays the opening phrase of Sweet Hour of Prayer while the choir sings the last half of the refrain, breaking into an even longer extension of the final cadence in five voices. Finally the piano plays a rising pattern, painting the idea of a prayer wafting its way to the heavens.
We sang this as prelude for the Sunday morning session. It set a beautiful, calm tone for the beginning of the meeting — and the final chord sounded at 10:00 on the dot which also made me happy!
My next post will discuss the closing number from last Sunday: More Holiness Give Me.