“Text and Tune” – RPC Music Notes, 29 Sep 2019

IAM is a ‘thought-vehicle’ fundamentally concerned with music itself, but there can be little debate on the inherent broadness of that topic. Not only is music an ancient and mind-bogglingly diverse human practice – but, too, as in all human creations, aspects of its creators and their contexts hold real implications for the groupings of notes, rhythms, harmonies and other elements one might otherwise be tempted to examine for their own sake.

This week we’ll look a bit deeper into a famous combination of tune and text. Where did it come from? How and why was it ‘made’? Why does it sound the way it does? What makes it famous or obscure, mundane or great?

Picture a time very different from our own, New England, 1830. The young American nation is building, industrialising and expanding. Full and thriving churches form the very centres of their communities, and increasingly as wealth grows, homes and schools are full of music. A 22-year-old Yale divinity graduate, Ray Palmer, takes a good job teaching in a private girls school, but endures a post-graduation year of illness and loneliness. He encounters a German poem evoking a kneeling sinner that moves him deeply. He translates the short poem, then adds a few verses of his own, giving us our hymn #677 in the Book of Praise.

1 My faith looks up to Thee, Thou Lamb of Calvary,
Saviour divine!
Now hear me while I pray, take all my guilt away;
O let me from this day be wholly Thine.

2 May Thy rich grace impart strength to my fainting heart,
my zeal inspire;
as Thou hast died for me, O may my love to Thee
pure, warm, and changeless be, a living fire.

3 While life’s dark maze I tread, and griefs around me spread,
be Thou my guide;
bid darkness turn to day, wipe sorrow’s tears away,
nor let me ever stray from Thee aside.

4 When ends life’s transient dream, when death’s cold, sullen stream
shall o’er me roll,
blest Saviour, then in love, fear and distrust remove;
O bear me safe above, a ransomed soul.

– Ray Palmer, My faith looks up to Thee (four of original six stanzas)

Palmer later stated, “The words for these stanzas were born out of my own soul with very little effort. I recall that I wrote the verses with tender emotion. . . . When writing the last line, “O bear me safe above, a ransomed soul!” the thought that the whole work of redemption and salvation was involved in those words. . . brought me to a degree of emotion that brought abundant tears.”

Two years later Palmer, apparently by chance, meets his old colleague, composer and educator Lowell Mason, in Boston. Mason, who is at the time gathering material for a new hymn collection, asks Palmer for a contribution, who supposedly hands over a leather notebook he happens to have on his person in which he had previously written his hymn. Mason immediately admires “My faith looks up to Thee,” composes a tune named ‘Olivet for its unusual 664.6664 metre (which it shares with only a few other tunes, perhaps most notably ‘God Save the Queen’), and publishes it in Spiritual Songs for Social Worship (1832). Mason, when he saw Palmer again later, said,

“Mr. Palmer, you may live many years and do many good things,
but I think you will be best known to posterity as the author
of ‘My Faith Looks Up To Thee.’”

– Dr Lowell Mason (1792-1872)

Mason’s tune combines a simple repetitive rhythm (all five of the six-syllable lines use the same rhythm, giving it a litany-like, even Rosary-like flavour). It also has a simple harmonic structure: most notably the last four lines remain settled almost entirely on the tonic (home) chord. This unusual static device seems to convey the firmness and conviction of a sure and confident faith. Likewise ‘Olivet’s unusual jump between its last two notes, A to D (the dominant and tonic): this gesture stands out as an unusual melodic feature – but in code, it is the musical epitome of closure.

Mason was correct about Palmer being best remembered for this hymn: it has been called the greatest American hymn; and Palmer, one of the greatest hymn writers of his day (and to boot, Mason himself the ‘father of American church music’). My faith looks up to Thee appeared during a golden age of hymn writing and publishing in America, was told from a deeply human story, was equipped with an easy-to-learn and moving tune, and went on to give comfort to individuals and institutions alike as America descended inexorably into war. These truths far outweigh my own humble musical observations and conclusions about Mason’s tune above, key though perhaps they were to the success of Palmer’s hymn.

Declaring unequivocally that God was working in that dark hour of Palmer’s life through this creation, as Wes suggests He was in Paul’s own rise from bitterness and suffering (Acts 8:1b-3) is comforting, if difficult to prove: but it is also folly to assume He was not. Either way, let it be so more and more in the human creative acts that so enrich us and our world.


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