It was the last day of shooting "The First Vision" in Palmyra, N.Y., and the rain was making it difficult to shoot the scene. The crew set up a canopy waiting and hoping for the weather to break. While they waited, they listened to the mood music Merrill Jenson had prepared to inspire the crew while shooting the film.
"As the crew waited patiently, suddenly the clouds parted," Jenson said. "The sun shone through the clouds and lighted the field with rays of sunlight. Quickly the crew rolled cameras and the actor playing Joseph was directed to walk through the field toward the grove. At the very moment they began filming, the tape of mood music cycled to my arrangement of 'Joseph Smith's First Prayer.' Those on the set were astonished by what had happened — by the sky and the music. They felt they had experienced a miracle. They quickly reset the scene, wound the music back to the 'Joseph Smith's First Prayer' cut and shot a second take.
"At the end of that take, the cloud filled the sky once again and the rain came down with even greater fury. They called for a wrap on the shoot. The crew hurriedly packed up their equipment and headed for the airport," he said.
When the director returned to Provo, he met with Jenson to find out whose arrangement it was they heard. When the director found out it was Jenson's, he asked Jenson to score the entire film.
"That was my first really big film. I was humbled and scared out of my mind. I prayed for inspiration many times on that film. Although I was never visited by an angel, I did feel inspired to write the music and have always been grateful for that wonderful opportunity to begin my career with such a wonderful, sacred film."
Jenson has scored more than 40 feature-length films, including "Legacy," "The Testaments," "Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration," "Finding Faith in Christ," "The Restoration" and "Emma Smith: My Story."
Jenson's music raises these films to a new level. Several years ago, he met President Gordon B. Hinckley and was introduced to him as the composer of the music for "Legacy."
"As President Hinckley shook my hand and looked deeply into my eyes, he told me that if the film was the body, my music was the soul of the film. He went on to say that the music lifted the film to greater heights. He said he felt the characters and the story more deeply because of the music. He went on to say that this was the finest music to go on a church film and perhaps to any film."
Jenson says that he receives divine inspiration as he composes. However, inspiration does not come without hard work and great effort.
Jenson said, "I have been accustomed to inspiration while composing. That does not mean the thoughts come easily. They come after much struggle, self-examination, searching for the right sounds, and putting in enormous amounts of time. Then the inspiration comes."
When Jenson was scoring the music for "The Testaments," he admits feeling overwhelmed at first. Before seeing much footage of the film, he was asked to have some themes prepared for the scene where the Savior visits the Nephites.
The director came by and listened to some of the themes Jenson had prepared. They both realized they hadn't found the right fit yet. Jenson continued to write and search for the Savior's theme.
"This process went on for almost two weeks. I had over 20 themes, all rejected. After the director's last visit I called him as he was driving home and told him he had the wrong composer. I told him I was out of ideas and it might be best to ask someone else to score the film. His calming voice assured me that I was the right one for the film, and he had confidence that I would come up with the right theme for the Savior. He encouraged me to take a couple of days off before trying again."
The next day, as Jenson woke up, doubts filled his mind about his writing abilities.
"About mid-morning, avoiding my studio setting I went to the piano in the living room and sat down to lament over my certain demise as a composer. I felt as low as I thought I could feel and just started improvising on the piano some sad invention that I felt. Playing that day wasn't fun … I determined to leave the piano and do something else. Just before I got up, my fingers played a few chords that drew my attention. When I stood up to walk away from the piano I felt compelled to sit back down and play those chords again. … Soon I had a phrase with a melody attached. My first thought was this could make a nice choral piece for my ward choir. As I experimented with it a bit, the second phrase came just like the first — kind of like an accident. I noticed that the little piece I was playing wasn't sad and depressing but uplifting and hopeful.
"Later my sweet wife, Betsy, listening in the other room came into the piano room and asked me if this composition was the Savior's theme for the film, 'The Testaments.' She liked it a lot and wanted to tell me so. (She is pretty critical of my compositions and if she doesn't like something, she will let me know.)
"I really hadn't thought about this little ditty as anything to do with the film I was working on. But I began thinking of it in that way and my heart began to swell a bit. … Now, feeling a bit energized I re-examined this little ditty and thought about how I could make it fitting for the Savior. I discovered that there wasn't anything really to change — it worked like it was. I was perplexed. Why did I like it? It wasn't epic … it sounded like a hymn. I immediately stood up from the piano, grabbed the sheets of paper with my scribbles and intended to go to my studio to play it with the film. Just as I stood up I heard in my mind a choir singing 'Al-le-lu-ia.'" I quickly sat back down and began to write it down."
Jenson watched the scene where the Savior comes down in a pillar of light to the Nephites and saw that his composition worked perfectly with the picture.
"… Not only did the theme work, it was conceived in the exact timing to fit picture and the cut of the woman kissing the hand of the Savior. Then as the scene ended the music finished in complete sync. I knew I had just experienced a inspired moment and I went to my knees and thanked my Heavenly Father for the love and trust he had in me for delivering this beautiful hymn," he said.
Jenson puts Heavenly Father first and gives his heart and soul when he composes. His inspired compositions have lifted many films, but most importantly, they have lifted their viewers' spirits to new heights.
Nicole Sheahan is a professional singer/songwriter studying media music at BYU. Her music blog appears Fridays on MormonTimes.com.
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