Musings on Music
When I was twelve years old, my grandmother gave me a very special gift for Christmas. It is still one of my prized possessions— a copy of Latter-Day Saint Hymns, the first LDS hymnbook in which the lyrics and music were combined. It replaced LDS Psalmody and the Songs of Zion. Printed in 1927 under the direction of Heber J. Grant, my copy contains an inscription in beautiful calligraphy: “Mayor Edward M. Dighton, Compliments Heber J. Grant, Sept. 25/28.” It was in the library of my great grandmother, and then passed to me by my grandmother. A google search on Mayor Dighton brings up a brief mention of a mayor in California whose mayoral race appeared to have been backed by the KKK.It may forever be a mystery if that is the same man inscribed in my book, and will certainly be a mystery how it came to be in my great grandmother’s library. (My grandmother doesn’t know).A perusal of the book reveals some things about the times in which it was printed. Some of the hymns, such as “Stop, and Tell Me Red Man,” would be terribly offensive by today’s standards. The number of hymns meant to be sung at funerals, including a few specifically for children tell us something about the higher mortality rates and the harsh experience of crossing the planes that may still have been fresher in the consciousness of the membership and hymn writers.
I love music, which is in part why I became a Music Therapist. A while ago I was asked to speak about music, specifically hymn singing in Relief Society. Here are a few of the thoughts that I shared with my sisters:
It is my belief that Spirit is ever-present. In Mormon-speak, we often talk about “inviting the Spirit” or someone might say that “the Spirit left the room when . . . .” I tend to think that the Spirit is all around us at all times, and we have only to bring ourselves into the present moment, to be “in tune” with it. Mindful singing is a powerful way to come into the present moment. Congregational singing also provides us the opportunity to be one with each other. All of our different voices can combine into one song. Each voice is unique and may take a different part, but they all blend together in harmony to provide a direct experience of unity. There is great power and beauty to be found in congregational hymn singing.
I’m struck by how instrumental women have been in creating the hymns. It was Emma Smith who compiled the first collection of hymns for the church. The First Presidency preface in the current hymnbook states, “Some of the greatest sermons are preached by the singing of hymns.” The women of the hymnbook have given us many stirring sermons. We have “Oh My Father” from Eliza Snow, the sole codified reminder of our Heavenly Mother as far as I know. We have a gorgeous sermon on making it through our darkest hours in Emma Lou Thayne’s “Where Can I Turn for Peace?” We can thank a woman named Annie Hawkes for the frequently sung “I Need Thee Every Hour.” The beloved hymn “Nearer My God to Thee” is written by Sarah Adams. For an interesting exercise (perhaps during the next high council talk when you need something to keep you awake!) you might try flipping through the hymnbook and noting how many of the hymn texts are penned by women. On balance, there are still more men, but proportionately women have more of a voice in the hymnbook than in any other official church publication that I’ve seen.
Thank you, Grandma Elaine for seeing and encouraging my love of music. And thank you for entrusting me with this treasure from our history in which women’s voices ring out strong and clear.