Philip Paul Bliss was born in Pennsylvania the same year as Joseph F. Smith (1838). He worked as a school teacher and music teacher for many years until he began giving concerts as a singer, which was much more lucrative. Always a religious man, he was persuaded in 1874 to devote himself to the ministry, as a kind of musical missionary. It was around this time that he wrote More Holiness Give Me under the title My Prayer. It quickly became his most popular composition. In a church meeting a few months before his death, he was asked from the pulpit to sing My Prayer for the congregation. He sat down at the piano and, looking at the line “more joy in his service” remarked, “I do not think I can sing that as a prayer anymore; it seems to me that I have as much joy in serving the blessed Master as it is possible for me to bear.”
Bliss’ premature death (he was 38 years old) was dramatic and legendary. Travelling with his wife to an appointment in Ohio, the train was crossing a trestle bridge when the bridge collapsed, sending the cars plummeting into a deep ravine. Bliss escaped uninjured, but as the trains caught fire he realized his wife was still trapped inside and he ran into the wreckage to save her. Neither body was ever found. The Ashtabula River Railroad Disaster became famous, but Philip Paul Bliss is famous for his many hymns, among which are Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy (and another on the same tune, Should You Feel Inclined to Censure) and More Holiness Give Me. Interestingly for Mormons, his trunk survived the train wreck and discovered within it was the text for a hymn entitled I Will Sing of My Redeemer, which Bliss had not yet set to music (he always wrote words and music). His friend, James McGranahan, set it to music and it was one of the first things Thomas Edison recorded on his new gramophone invention. That tune was later used for Eliza R. Snow’s poem, O My Father.
When approaching a hymn arrangement like this (you can find mine here), I play through the hymn several times, maybe play with the harmony a bit, analyse the tune and generally immerse myself in it. Then I will sit back quietly and imagine. As I thought about this one my mind went to the opening accompaniment pattern of a classical piece I used to play, Rachmaninov’s lovely Prelude in D, Op.23 No.4 (here’s a YouTube link for those that don’t know it). I could imagine the hymn fitting with an accompaniment like this, but it is in slow 3/4 with triplets, whereas the hymn is in 4/4 with triplets. So I started playing with changing the metre of the hymn and liked the result. It creates more space in the melody than the original, and I especially like the emphatic effect of the quarter-note triplets in the second half. It also has the benefit of making the setting special – something the composer should always be aiming for.
The accompaniment is engaging enough on its own to carry the opening verse sung in unison. When I was younger I would set everything in four parts, but I’ve found that there is great power in unison singing when done well – and it’s easier for the choir. It adds another colour to the palette and makes the harmonized sections stand out even more. So I usually allow for some unison singing in my arrangements. In the SAB setting of More Holiness I give the entire opening verse to the men.
The second verse accompaniment is exactly the same (in fact, most of the third verse is the same, just transposed). When you carefully craft a piano part, it bears repeating. The melody goes to the sopranos with the altos harmonizing. The men sing an echoing part to the women, the same rhythm one beat behind, but different notes that harmonize nicely. I like the effect at the end of the second phrase, “More pride in his glory…” where the men suddenly jump ahead of the women. They resume the one beat echo on the next phrase, but again jump ahead and sing a steady quarter-note counter melody until the last phrase where the whole choir comes together rhythmically.
Modulations. I used to be of the opinion that modulations were cheap gimmicks, an easy cheat to give a little variety without putting in the effort to develop counterpoint or accompaniment ideas or some more substantial compositional ideas. I used to studiously avoid modulations. But Mack Wilberg has key changes in just about every hymn arrangement, usually several, and he’s no hack (that’s a colossal understatement). A key change does give a new sense of urgency, new life, new trajectory to a piece of music and often the new key varies the choral sound slightly (or substantially, depending on how much higher – it’s almost always higher – the new key is).
You can modulate with an interlude that uses a pivot chord (a chord that’s common to the two keys, but is re-interpreted in the new key) or alter a chord tone of one of the home-key chords to lead to a new key. In certain instances it works to just abruptly switch to the new key with no preparation. This is what I did here, suddenly beginning the third verse a semitone higher. This is a technique that is sometimes used in pop music or show tunes (although a whole tone rise is more common).
(Speaking of Brother Wilberg, he uses one modulation technique almost all the time. I refer to it as the “Conference Modulation”. Without getting too technical, he takes a major chord, adds the flat 7th (like a dominant 7th) and resolves it as if it were an augmented 6th chord – commonly known as a German 6th. This is very dramatic and effective and can take us a few places, depending on which chord of the original key he uses to pivot from. It’s the technique used at the glorious climax of the 2nd movement of Bruckner’s 7th Symphony. But why use it all the time? I’ve never been able to figure this out. There are other good modulations… I guess he just likes the effect, and it’s become a kind of signature – I can always smell one coming several bars ahead. I use it myself sometimes, but I like to mix it up, personally.)
For the third verse I alternate unison phrases with three-part singing (for Stake Conference I adapted this for SATB, so four-part but the same idea). The climactic second half of the verse stays in three parts to the end. But I don’t end there. I repeat the last line in unison, low in the voices to give quiet weight and reverence to it and then split into a lovely three-part chord on “Savior”. This is a favourite chord with me, a simple triad with an added 9th (or 2nd depending on how you like to think of it). In performance this chord was so magical, I added a long fermata to savour the moment. Then I quote the opening of another hymn, Precious Savior, Dear Redeemer, (just a whim that came to me as I was working on the ending – I like to trust my whims) and close with a standard but drawn out ii-V-I cadence.
I conducted this piece at conference with the Stake President and our visiting General Authority sandwiched between me and my choir. Conducting in a Mormon chapel, you usually are standing a few feet in front of the leaders as they stare intently at you. It was the same at the Montreal Temple dedication with Presidents Hinckley and Monson. You get used to it. In fact, I like to glance down once in a while to see how they are reacting. I’m tempted to point at them for a solo or something. On this occasion the Stake President was teary-eyed, so mission accomplished. The choir loved singing this one, and I felt a very sweet spirit as I led them one last time after years of music making in this, my home stake – I moved West a few weeks later. Thanks guys. Look forward to the heavenly choirs.