Behind The Hymns: The Lord Is My Light

I’ve been meaning to get a Behind The Hymns post for last week up for a while now, and finally life has slowed down a bit so I can get that taken care of. For now I think I might switch to a different schedule for these…as is the case this time around, the posts for the time being will be about the hymns I played the preceding Sunday (rather than the upcoming Sunday), if that makes sense. (Note: As I did last week, I’ll be taking my background info from the terrific hymn reference book “Our Latter-Day Hymns: The Stories and the Messages” by Karen Lynn Davidson. Just giving credit where credit’s due.) Anyways, the opening hymn from last week…

“The Lord Is My Light” (Hymn #89, text by James Nicholson, music by John R. Sweney)

This hymn is one of many in the LDS hymnbook penned by those of other faiths, and it’s kind of interesting how beloved it’s become as a part of Latter-Day saint hymnody over the years. It takes its title (and really, its main message) from the Psalms, specifically the 27th one, which says, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” Karen Lynn Davidson astutely notes in “Our Latter-Day Hymns” that “we need something stronger than our mortal vision. The answer is that our Savior’s vision is perfect: ‘There is in his sight no darkness at all.'” (The last line she references is directly from the hymn itself.) We can receive true, neverending light from a heavenly source, and that’s something incredibly comforting. I really like this hymn’s energy and brightness, and although it’s fairly simple musically (it doesn’t vary much in tone, notes, or structurally), it’s incredibly powerful and uplifting all the same.

“While of These Emblems We Partake” (Hymn #174, text by John Nicholson, music by Alexander Schreiner)

In the last Behind The Hymns post, I talked about “Tis Sweet To Sing The Matchless Love,” which is one of the hymn texts that features two different settings in the LDS hymnbook. (Funnily enough, I discovered that Sunday that we actually weren’t singing that hymn at all…somewhere down the line either me or my organ teacher must have read one of the numbers wrong, perhaps? Ah, well. At least you know about that hymn now. I’m sure there was a good reason. :)) This hymn is one of the other ones, and is also a hymn we sing during the Sacrament (once again, if you’d like to more about it, check out some official words on the subject here). The “Our Latter-Day Hymns” book points out that the lyrics progress very nicely through the different aspects of the Sacramental ordinance…each verse kind of has a different focus. The words are also very poetic and beautifully written (though this is true of quite a lot of hymn texts, especially ones written for the Sacrament and about the Savior’s sacrifice, really). As for this hymn musically, I’ve gone back and forth over the years as to which of the two settings for “While of These Emblems” I like better (they’re actually pretty similar, when you look at them side-by-side), so I’m not sure whether it’s my favorite of the two or not, but as it stands alone, it’s incredibly lovely, and I really like some of the tensions in the harmonies towards the middle. An interesting biographical note about this setting: it was written by Alexander Schreiner, the organist for the Salt Lake Tabernacle and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for many years, and its tune name, “Aeolian,” was named after the Aeolian-Skinner organ that Schreiner helped select for a rebuilding of the Tabernacle back in the 1940s. (The original organ from the mid-1800s is still part of the current one, by the way.)

“Do What Is Right” (Hymn #237, text by an anonymous author, music by George Kaillmark)

If “The Lord Is My Light” is a very simple hymn as I mentioned above, then “Do What Is Right” is probably as musically straightforward as the LDS hymnbook gets. Whatever voice part you sing, chances are you’ll be repeating the exact same note for more than half of this song. Still, it speaks a very positive, direct, important message, one that really can be summed up in the title: Do what is right. You really can’t get any more concise than that. (Lines like “Angels above us are silent notes taking,” which would normally seem a bit blunt, perhaps, also turn into gentle reminders about obedience when in the context of this hymn.)  The writer of the text is unknown, but we do know that it comes from an 1857 Boston publication called “The Psalms of Life,” at least according to the writing credit. According to George D. Pyper, the writer of a previous LDS hymn reference, George Q. Cannon (an LDS leader) heard this hymn sung while in Britain back in the mid-1800s, and was impressed enough with it that he later saw that it was included in the next LDS hymnbook. Pyper also notes that “‘Do What Is Right’ cannot be classified as a sacred hymn, and it is doubtful that the author ever considered it as such […] But if it is not a message of divine truth there was never one written.” (It’s funny to hear someone proclaim that a hymn normally sung in religious services isn’t sacred, but I think what George D. Pyper’s was kind of pointing out is that it’s a pretty universal message found in this hymn, not just confined to a church building on a Sunday.)

As for the hymn’s tune, it has had a very interesting history. George Kaillmark, a British composer, originally wrote the tune for part of a poem called “Lalla Rookh: An Oriental Romance.” The first stanza, which is reprinted in “Our Latter-Day Hymns, ” is just too deliciously random out of context for me to pass up sharing with you:

“Farewell — farewell to thee, Araby’s daughter!

(Thus warbled a Peri beneath the dark sea,)

No pearl ever lay, under Oman’s green water,

More pure in its shell than thy Spirit in thee.”

(If I was a braver, more mischievous soul, I would choose this as a solo sometime for a Church meeting, start singing these words, and see just how many confused, perplexed looks I’d get. :)) In the United States, though, this tune became popular as the setting to a poem by Samuel Woodworth called “The Old Oaken Bucket.” A quick glance at Wikipedia helped me discover that The Old Oaken Bucket is now the name of the trophy given to the winner of the annual football game between rival schools Purdue and Indiana. (You can find the text of the poem in that Wiki article, in case you want to try out my singing-different-words-just-to-mess-with-people idea.) J. Spencer Cornwall, the writer of yet another previous LDS hymn reference work, was (somewhat amusingly) unhappy with this connotation, and said that “it is regrettable that such a forthright, positive challenge as is found in this hymn could not have been traditionally associated with more worthy music and a less ignoble connotation.” However, there are a few other songs in the hymnbook set to tunes from somewhat unsavory places, so at least “Do What Is Right” isn’t alone. (As a final note, this tune is also used for a song in the Primary songbook, used for kids to memorize the books of the Old Testament. I’ve never liked the way it’s done there, as there’s so many darn Old Testament books that the writers had to cram in the names every which way they could, and as a result it’s a beast to learn and sing. :))

As always, let me know your feedback, and also let me know if I’m going on too many tangents or writing your ears off or anything. (I’ll always try to keep this feature as interesting and insightful as I can, and also I’ll do my best to make it applicable not just to those of the LDS faith as well.) See you soon with many more new posts (I have a lot to cover in the coming weeks!), and thanks for taking the time to stop by.

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