Technical considerations in hymn composition  I: Working with the Text

Now to some of my thoughts on hymn writing for the composer.  It should be obvious that the primary consideration when writing a hymn is the voice.  The melody must be in a range that is singable for the average person: just over an octave range from C to the upper D (perhaps stretching a whole tone on either side of that range occasionally).  It should be relatively uncomplicated, having enough repetition to be logical and readily learned by the untrained singer, yet also having enough variety to avoid becoming boring.

Above all, the melody must enhance and express the meaning of the words.  This can be tricky when the different verses of the hymn don’t match the exact syntactical and emotional points.  If the verses are quite different from each other in this way, it can be an even greater problem.  A common example is the last verse of “Come, come ye Saints”, where the sombre thought, “And should we die before our journey’s through”, is at odds with the cheery, hopeful exhortations of the first three verses.  Organists wonder what to do with this: a little slower?  A softer registration that swells to a grand forte in the middle of the verse?  – it’s the rare organist that can pull that off.  Another prime example is the last verse of “Battle Hymn of the Republic”.  But these hymns are so strong overall that the momentary mismatch is endured without complaint[1].

Scott’s hymns often have a wonderful twist in the last verse.  Take for example “We Shall Become Thy Sons”.  The opening verses speak of priesthood service and close with the statement, “Thus we shall become thy sons”.  Then the last verse speaks of the women in our lives, specifically our wives: “Sealed to these beloved ones, thus we shall become thy sons”, and in a single phrase is expressed  not only tenderness for our wives, but also the doctrine that only through the temple sealing can we achieve exaltation!  I remember the first time I read through that hymn during my lunch hour and thinking, “Verse one, hm-hmm, that’s nice; verse two, fine”.  But then I came to the final chorus and the Spirit encompassed me and I thought, “Wow. This is powerful, unique.”  I printed out the words to take with me and composed the melody that day on the train home.

Why do I mention this here?  Because usually you write the melody to the first verse and then try it out on the others, but sometimes it’s best to take that special last verse and set it to music.  Now, if all the verses match one another lyrically (as Scott’s almost always do) this won’t introduce any musical problems with the other verses, but the strongest verse has set the tone for the whole hymn.  And in any case, you want to be sure that when the “punch” comes – so to speak – in that last verse, that the music will support it.

A point of controversy between composers and poets is repetition of lines, and Scott is no exception in this regard: he doesn’t like it.  If he’d wanted to repeat a phrase he would have done it.  However, after some discussion (and, I guess, after establishing some trust that the result would be good) he graciously allowed me some latitude in this matter, acknowledging that a song is different than a poem and sometimes the music needs a phrase to be repeated.  A well-known hymn that illustrates this point is God be with you till we meet again[2].  Remarkably, the whole 16 measure first verse and chorus consists of:

God be with you till we meet again at Jesus’ feet;

By his counsels guide, uphold you;

With his sheep securely fold you;

Basically, aside from the “God be with you” phrases, the unique content of each verse is a single rhyming couplet.  The rest of this one-and-a-half page hymn is filled out (with marvelous effect) by repetition and variation of a most significant phrase.

Ideally such repetition not only serves a musical need, but enhances the sense of the text as well.  I never repeat a phrase if (a) it doesn’t occur on a significant, repeat-worthy phrase and (b) it doesn’t work for every verse without major textual alterations.  Often it will be the last line that is repeated, but sometimes an inner line, as in The Laborer Is Worthy, where the third line is repeated.  In the case of this hymn, it adds a touch of irony (or perhaps appropriateness) in the first verse where the repeated phrase is, “It cannot be delayed”, thus delaying the end of the verse.

from the Forword to Hymns of Light

[1] A side note: sometimes ambitious music directors will attempt such effects with the congregation, but I have learned that if you try anything too fancy the result will likely be confusion and frustration – or perhaps bemusement – in the congregation: just the opposite of what is wanted.  The hymn must serve the saints, not the other way around. Hymn singing must bring the peace and joy of the Spirit to the congregation.  Period.  Save the choral effects for the choir. (Indeed, promote, embrace, relish the choral effects with the choir!)

[2] God be with you till we meet again, Hymns, 152.

3 Comments

  1. Jacqui

    Not exactly related, but this reminds me that I’ve often wondered, with hymns like Let No Hands, did Card really write it with a random extra line at the end of the poem, or was it originally like a fifth line of the verses that you decided to extricate for musical purposes? I can’t think of any hymn book hymns that have an extra line like that…so I’ve often wondered who it came from.

    • Mark Mitchell

      It’s an interesting point – composers want to make endings special and the coda is a way to achieve this in a hymn. There aren’t any in our book with a tag like “Let No Hands” (although “That Easter Morn” comes close). There are some in the Primary Song Book though, like “Army of Helaman”.

      Card never wrote any of the repetitions in his texts — in fact at first he protested when I did that, but then decided that it was musically preferable and I could do as I pleased. On a couple of occasions I wrote text myself for a coda. For “Feed My Sheep” I inserted two whole lines! Of course, whenever I took any liberties with the text I passed it by the lyricist.

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