An area of music I haven’t really touched on too much on this blog yet is sacred music. For full disclosure’s sake, I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormons. Like many other religions, we have a rich tradition of wonderful hymns and music, and I simply love the wealth of sacred music that the LDS community has grown to include. (For those of you who may not know, our hymnbook includes a great deal of hymns from outside our faith.)
About a year ago, I was called to a role that put me front and center in the tradition of singing hymns…I became our ward’s organist. (“Wards” are the name for the local divisions of our church…kind of similar to “parishes” or “congregations” in other religions.) I came into this calling not knowing how to play the organ whatsoever, though I had a big background in piano. It was an interesting experience learning to play the organ at first, and I’ve grown to absolutely love it (the tricky pedals included).
So why am I rambling about LDS hymnody and my calling as an organist? It’s all to introduce a new feature I’d like to try out here, called “Behind The Hymns.” Each week, I have 3-4 hymns I’m assigned to play on Sundays. Using my handy dandy copy of the definitive book about the LDS hymnal, “Our Latter-Day Hymns: The Stories and The Messages” by Karen Lynn Davidson (which has actually since been revised, and I hope to get my hands on the revised edition soon), I’ll be reading about each of the hymns I’m playing every week, and share some interesting things I found with you all, as well as a few of my own personal thoughts. For those of you reading who aren’t LDS, I won’t be shying away from sharing my beliefs and faith as appropriate in these posts, but I won’t be making it all about that either. My intent is to show how these hymns are universal for all, and to kind of gain a deeper insight into them, both musically and lyrically. So here we go! The opening hymn for this Sunday is…
“Be Thou Humble” (Hymn #130, text & music by Grietje Terburg Rowley)
My initial familiarity with this hymn is from a somewhat strange place…I first remember hearing it often when my parents used to play an old Afterglow tape we had every Sunday morning. (For the uninitiated, Afterglow is an exceedingly cheesy, but sometimes strangely endearing LDS duo who were quite popular in the 80s and 90s, and still apparently are today.) Thanks to the many times I’ve heard their version of the hymn, little snippets of it immediately come to mind whenever I see the name “Be Thou Humble,” or hear even a tiny bit of the song. The memories are too powerful (for better or for worse).
Humility is sometimes a complicated subject (for example, there’s the fact that when we think we’re humble people, we’re probably not truly humble), but I think Sister Rowley communicates it beautifully in this hymn. The last line of the first verse, “Be thou humble in thy pleading, and the Lord thy God shall bless thee/Shall bless thee with a sweet and calm assurance that he cares,” is very well-put, I think. The Lord will always be there for us when we ask for Him.
The story behind this hymn that’s recounted in “Our Latter-Day Hymns” is very cool to read about. Grietje Rowley apparently wrote the words to what was to become “Be Thou Humble” during a quiet, peaceful winter afternoon. She didn’t put them to music at the time, however…she ended up putting them away and forgetting about them, sometimes thinking she should set them to music, but not finding much inspiration. One night, she found that inspiration, hearing the first few measures in her head out of the blue, and hurried to get them down on paper and work out the basic melody. The rest, as they say, is history.
“Tis Sweet To Sing The Matchless Love” (Hymn #177, text by George Manwaring, music by Ebenezer Beesley)
To start off, I’ve always thought Ebenezer Beesley’s name sounds REALLY cool. (Would my future wife hate me too much if I suggested we name our firstborn “Ebenezer Beesley Randall”? ) Anyways, this is one of the handful of hymn texts in the LDS hymnbook that actually includes two separate settings. This is the second one, and it contrasts with the first one in that it’s a bit more upbeat and energetic. (That’s not to say that the other setting is boring or anything…it just has a more stately, dignified persona.) Karen Lynn Davidson describes it in the book as having a “gospel-song energy.” It’s not quite as rousing as, say, a showstopping number with a gospel choir, but I think it’s very fun to sing and listen to.
The text of the hymn speaks of the joy of partaking of the Sacrament every week. (For those of you who aren’t LDS and would like to know more about what the Sacrament entails, you can check out a brief but informative description here.) It’s something that’s part of LDS church services each week, so as church members we can often veer towards taking it for granted. This hymn, with great words of celebration such as “Oh blessed hour! Communion sweet!”, helps remind us that it’s a privilege and a blessing. It also features sentiments of love and appreciation for Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ in general, as well, so it’s not just about the ordinance of the Sacrament.
“Come, Thou Glorious Day of Promise” (Hymn #50, text from Pratt’s Collection [alt.], music by A.C. Smyth)
This is definitely one of the hymns in the hymnbook that I’m not very familiar with. (And I know some REALLY obscure hymns. Like “The Wintry Day Descending To Its Close,” which I think is one of the most beautiful hymns in our hymnal, but remains incredibly unknown to almost everyone. Sad day. Tangent over.) In fact, playing it during my organ practice this week, I’m not entirely sure I’ve heard it before. (It’s so new to me, in fact, that I don’t think I’ve quite memorized the melody yet.) I’ve found it, though, to be a very lovely hymn, and the fact that it’s fairly uptempo is nice. (Not that I don’t love softer, slower hymns in most cases to pieces, but playing/singing a faster hymn once in a while is a treat.) The words are a heartfelt plea to the Lord for peace and salvation, and reading through them, they’re very straightforward, but also poetic. Interesting fact: They were originally credited to Alexander Neibaur, a respected Latter-Day saint in the 1800s from England, but it turns out he only contributed them, and didn’t pen them. Their origin is simply known as “from Pratt’s Collection“…no one knows who exactly wrote the lyrics.
“I’ll Go Where You Want Me To Go” (Hymn #270, text by Mary Brown, music by Carrie E. Rounsefell)
Like I mentioned earlier, the LDS hymnbook features a lot of hymns from non-LDS writers and origins. This one would be one of them (though I’m not entirely sure it’s widely sung outside the LDS Church). It’s a very simple, straightforward hymn musically (once I sang it in a church meeting as a duet with another guy in my ward, and we along with the pianist tried to spice it up a little bit by changing up the arrangement ever so slightly), but it’s also very powerful as well. The theme, as you probably guessed from the title, is obedience…and I think it goes a long way towards expressing, in a very profound way, how obedience is more than just following someone blindly…it’s true, deep commitment, trust, and faith in a heavenly source. (You can find the complete text here.) Particularly striking to me is the recurring line, “I’ll be what you want me to be.” It reflects the changes we need to make in ourselves to become better…not just to DO good things, but to BE good people. That’s true not just in the LDS faith, but anywhere, really.
Here’s an account in “Our Latter-Day Hymns” that I found incredibly interesting, from an editor named Homer Rodeheaver (another fun name!) talking about the creation of the musical part of the song by Carrie Rounsefell:
“Mrs. Rounsefell is a tiny woman who lives in Boston. She used to do evangelistic work, and accompanied her singing with an old-fashioned zither. One day a friend handed her the words of this hymn and immediately a tune came to her and she struck a chord on her zither and sang the song.”
Yep…according to Mr. Rodeheaver, she came up with the tune on the spot. Using a zither, of all things. I don’t know about you, but I’m quite impressed.
So there you have it…the inaugural edition of Behind The Hymns. I’d really love some feedback on this new feature, so let me know if you love it, hate it, or how I can change it and make it better. As always, thanks for reading, and see you soon with some more new posts.