I love Christmas carols. In a typical year, I start listening to Christmas music by October at the latest, just to make sure I can be sure to enjoy it fully by the time Christmas actually rolls around. So it makes me sad that we have space for only 14 Christmas hymns in our hymnal. It’s not a big surprise, given that it’s not a lengthy hymnal1 to begin with, but it’s still unfortunate.
I thought it might be an interesting exercise to consider which of the 14 I might be willing to give up, and which ones I might like to add to take their place. Perhaps I’ll even think of an extra few to add in case we one day get a super-sized hymnal. Read More
I am our ward choir director. If you knew me in real life you might find this shocking—I am no great musical talent, I have no formal training, and most importantly, I sport no distinguished-looking facial hair—no mutton chop sideburns or flamboyant goatee—the true mark of a virtuoso conductor.
What I can do is read music and play the piano passably well, and that is about it…which apparently qualifies me as choir director. I am a warm body who can keep a beat and carry a tune. Praise the Lord and pass the earplugs! Read More
Which hymns are sung most often in General Conference? My impression is that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is always opening Conference with “The Morning Breaks,” and every other congregational hymn is “Redeemer of Israel,” but I’ve never actually looked to see if that’s true.
It’s almost Conference time again, and although it has only been six months, I can hardly remember what was said in April. Perhaps Conference talks would be easier to remember if they were set to music. It seems appropriate to set them to the music of hymns, since Conference talks and hymns both inhabit that space of being sorta kinda but not really completely scripture.
I’ll start with an easy one. Here’s a singable version of then-Elder Boyd K. Packer’s classic “To Young Men Only,” given in the Priesthood Session of October 1976 Conference. Sing to the tune of “Behold! A Royal Army.”
Behold! A little fact’ry
Is in you; it begins
To make a sacred substance,
But opens you to sins.
Your fact’ry will run slowly,
And when it makes too much,
It opens a release valve:
This valve you must not touch!
Tamper not! Tamper not!
Do not touch that release valve!
Tamper not! Tamper not!
If tempted, sing a hymn!
Tamper not! Tamper not! Tamper not!
Your fact’ry lights keep dim.
I like to think that if J.R.R. Tolkien had been Mormon, he might have written a book about the hassles of getting the Book of Mormon translated. Such a book might have included the following song:
Chip the peepstone and break the plates!
Melt the sealed portion down!
That’s what Joseph Jr. hates—
Wave the sword of Laban around!
Cut the top off of the hat!
Lose page one through 116!
Smash the Urim and Thummim flat!
Refuse to put your farm to lien!
That’s what Joseph Jr. hates—
So, carefully! carefully with the plates!
Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall have comfort. They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. Who goeth forth and weepeth, and beareth precious seed, shall doubtless return with rejoicing, and bring his sheaves with him. –Brahms Requiem, 1st movement
As I lay curled in a ball on my bed late Friday night, trying to quiet the sobs that shook my body and had the mascara pooling in dark circles under my eyes, it was difficult to remember the words from a few hours earlier: “blessed are they that mourn…” When the emotional pain envelops you and leaves little room for rational thought, the blessedness of mourning is merely an attractive idea. And comfort is very far away. Read More
Dr. Seuss got at least one thing right: music is absolutely essential to any celebration of Christmas, perhaps even the most essential element; for me, the day the Christmas season begins is the day I bust out my collection of Christmas CDs (though I admit, I often cheat and start singing Christmas music in October or November, even though I refrain from listening to it that early). This year I recently compiled a list of about 80 most cherished Christmas songs, my favorite of which is actually not a Christmas song at all but an Advent song: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Of course, my choices are guided chiefly by music, but this 12th- or 13th-century Gregorian chant is the setting for wonderfully gloomy, plaintive, moving lyrics, answered antiphonally in the refrain by the promise of deliverance–as one popular translation from the Latin original renders two of the verses:
When I put my boys to bed at night, I often sing them hymns. One of their favorites is “There Is a Green Hill Far Away,” probably because it’s one of the few that I know all the verses to and can sing in the dark. But part of this hymn has always struck me as odd. In the first verse, it says that the green hill is “where the dear Lord was crucified.” The dear Lord? That sounds so impersonal. So taking a page from “Upon the Cross of Calvary,” I always sing this line as “where our dear Lord was crucified.”
So are there any hymns that you sing nonstandard words to, or any for which you would like to see the wording changed?
Beat! beat! drums! — blow! bugles! blow! / Through the windows — through doors — burst like a ruthless force… (Walt Whitman, “Beat! Beat! Drums!”; Dona Nobis Pacem, second movement)
In 1937, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote Dona Nobis Pacem. The piece emerged from his feelings on the rising tide of Fascism and Naziism in Europe in the late 1930’s as well as his experiences as an ambulance driver and artillery officer in the First World War. The title of the piece means “grant us peace,” and it is a compelling musical journey that borrows texts from the Bible, Walt Whitman (“Beat! Beat! Drums!”, “Reconciliation,” and “A Dirge for Two Veterans”) and John Bright’s famous “Angel of Death” speech, and which runs the gamut of musical colors and emotions–from the frenetic representation of war in the second movement to the weary calm of the third movement to the somber death march of the fourth movement to the despair and emptiness of the fifth movement and to the eventual joy and hope of the final, sixth movement. Read More