Notes on Brightly Beams our Father’s Mercy

Occasionally I share a bit of my musical process when I publish something new.  My new arrangement of Brightly Beams our Father’s Mercy is a bit different from my usual approach to choral music, so I thought I’d give a bit of insight.

The first verse is a very exposed solo section.  I envision it sung by a baritone, but that is usually my bias.  I sing baritone and love that vocal color.  The accompaniment is just enough to keep the soloist on track.  Since this hymn is written in the second person, the singer literally speaks to the audience.  I didn’t want over-arranging to interrupt that in the first verse.

The second and third verses are built on an ostinato in the piano part.  The right hand has only one measure-long pattern which is repeated in alternating octaves.  The left hand has a palate of seven different closely related ostinati which define (or at least suggest) the chord for each measure.  You may also notice that there is not an accidental in this piece – it is entirely diatonic (and at some brief moments may verge on pandiatonicism).  This is a departure from Bliss’s original harmonization and every other arrangement I have encountered, which all rely on secondary dominants in the chorus.  I also took the time signature from 3/4 to 4/4 to smooth out the piece.

I am both sorry and proud to say that this approach with the repeated ostinatos is a direct nod to minimalism.  When I first started listening to examples of minimalist music, I was pretty snarky about it.  Much of it is unpleasant for casual listening; some have suggested that Terry Riley’s In C is only listenable under the influence of drugs.  However, as I listened beyond some of the obvious musical gimmicks of minimalism, I found value in many of the underlying principles these composers used.  I am especially interested in the work of John Adams and Steve Reich, who over time have both found ways to elevate some initially trite minimalist concepts into meaningful music.  I do not consider myself a minimalist, but this idea of repetition of a musical over extended time has been quite influential to the way I think about music.

In the case of Brightly Beams, I think the ostinati are the right vehicle to subtly suggest the waves of the ocean.

Over the top of the second and third verses, two violins chase each other around in a quasi-canonical fashion.  (If I call it a loose canon, I suppose that means something else.)  These violin passages draw heavily upon the rhythmic and melodic elements of the hymn tune, but they never play along with the choral parts; they exist independently.

Verses 2 and 3 are nearly identical in all respects, but the choir splits in verse 3, and the two parts sing the melody in canon, separated by two beats.  This is not a complex device, but it creates such interesting consonances and dissonances while remaining understandable.  This verse brings to my mind the concept of voices echoing across the water.

Hopefully the arrangement is enjoyable for those of you who choose to use it.

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Nathan Howe is a Colorado composer, performer, and teacher. If you enjoy the free music available on this website, please share it with friends, commission a composition, or make a donation. Thank you!

5 thoughts on “Notes on Brightly Beams our Father’s Mercy”

  1. Thanks for sharing, Nathan. What an interesting insight to what it means to be a musician (to paraphrase your Wednesday FB post), which is something I would love to become too, one day.

        1. Piano skills definitely help, but you don’t need to be a virtuoso performer in order to compose. A good next step would be to begin learning some of the common rules of music theory. The ideas of the “common practice period” (from the Baroque period to the early Romantic) are very important, especially for part writing. Of course, we do not always abide by those rules now, but it is good to know them so that when you deviate from them, you do it artistically and intentionally.

          This website has good summaries of these common practice principles:

          My other recommendation is simply to begin writing. As you play with placing notes on the page in Finale, you will begin to develop ideas of what combinations sound good to you. These judgments will shape your future writing. Don’t wait until you think you know everything to begin writing.

          I began writing music before I knew many of the rules of good composition. I don’t particularly like my scores from those early days, but I needed to write them in order to gain experience. In fact, I have regrets about some of my compositions that are only a couple of years old. I am sure that in ten years, I will look back at my current compositions and say, “I had no idea what I was doing back then.” There is no shame in constant improvement – start where you are.

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