IN 1859, COMPOSER Charles Gounod took the Latin text of "Ave Maria" and fastened it to a version of Bach's "Prelude No. 1 in C Major." They went together like a plug going into an outlet. And the result was pure electricity. A masterpiece.
About that same time, more musical magic was afoot. Someone had the happy idea of taking a poem by LDS writer W.W. Phelps and wedding it to a melody by classical composer Felix Mendelssohn.
The result was a marriage made in heaven. The sacrament hymn "O God, the Eternal Father" is a miracle.
I'll explain in a moment.
First, let me say I have always seen the sacrament songs as the "royalty" of the LDS hymnal. Choirs don't sing the sacrament song. It belongs to the congregation. And so the sacrament hymns are both regal yet somehow of the people.
They blend the high with the low and leave us all with a sense of community.
Over the years my favorite sacrament hymn has changed, because I've changed. For years I liked the simplicity of "There Is a Green Hill Far Away." Then I got a crush on the easy waltz rhythms of "How Great the Wisdom and the Love." When I began singing bass in school choirs, however, I gravitated to the rolling, melodic bass line of "In Humility, Our Savior."
Now, I find myself standing all amazed at "O God, the Eternal Father."
That opening line descends step by step, as if a great king were coming down from his throne, only to turn serene and calm on the word "Father." The line shows us a deity who is to be worshipped but also loved.
When Phelps' words speak of dwelling "amid the sky," the melody rises, leaping to a pinnacle on the word "Jesus." The words "bless and sanctify" show us humility, until another surge starts on the word "bread and cup of wine." We ring that bell again on the word "we" the fellowship of saints.
Other LDS hymns have been set to classical pieces, of course. "Praise to the Man," also Phelps, fits snugly with the tune "Scotland the Brave," that Scottish anthem every bagpiper can pipe. And the 300-year-old text of "Be Still, My Soul" blends sweetly with the classical "Finlandia" by Jean Sebelius.
But though I'm not a musicologist, I still see something amazing in the Phelps-Mendelssohn hymn. The song seems to lie beyond making as if it just happened.
So it is with miracles.
"O God, the Eternal Father" today is the only sacrament hymn we still sing from Emma Smith's 1835 collection. The Saints sang it to other tunes for years; but when some genius linked the words up with the Mendelssohn melody, it was like flint striking steel to create a celestial spark. Something eternal happened.
Perhaps in days ahead my fancy will fasten on other hymns. Like Christmas carols, different sacrament songs speak to people at different stages of our lives.For I know I'll always feel a little buzz when I hear the organist sound those opening notes of "O God, the Eternal Father." They remind me of a stairway that leads majestically down until it reaches the infinite sea.
Jerry Johnston is a Deseret News staff writer. "New Harmony" appears weekly in the Mormon Times section. E-MAIL: [email protected]
E-MAIL: [email protected]