“O My Father” began public life as a poem on the back page of an obscure newspaper. It is now a lilting, pastoral hymn instantly recognizable throughout the world, sung in dozens of languages by millions of people. The transformation was convoluted. Latter-day Saints always wanted to sing Eliza R. Snow’s poem. But as they sought for the best way to do so, they found a bewildering set of options, all complicated by inconsistencies of publication, competing musical tastes, visionary experiences, political happenstance, and quirks in Snow’s text itself.
In tracing the history of “O My Father,” we should begin with the obvious question: Did Eliza R. Snow intend it to be sung? As first published in 1845, “O My Father” (then under the title “My Father in Heaven”) was clearly labeled as poetry, not as a hymn.But poetry and song lyrics were virtually interchangeable in early Mormondom; a great deal of verse was published under the heading of “poetry” with a notation of the tune to which it should be sung. So even if Snow did not originally intend her poem to be sung, she probably knew that it would be. Practically speaking, the Saints needed hymns to fill their meetings, not poems to fire their private meditations. (They had an abundance of new revelations to do that.) They craved hymn texts like “O My Father”—short, didactic, distinctively Mormon, and strict in the number of syllables per line. So it was not surprising that, six years after its publication as a poem, “O My Father” entered the LDS hymnbook.
At that time, the hymnbook contained no music, only words and metrical designations, which enabled singers to match texts to existing tunes of the same meter. This situation posed a problem for “O My Father.” Superficially, as a hymn text, the poem would have the meter known as 8787 Double. Such a hymn would normally feature a trochaic meter—the “long-short” pattern of accents that appears in some lines of “O My Father”:
But most of the lines in Snow’s poem seem to begin not with a long-short pair of syllables, but with two short (unaccented) syllables, as in this line:
Moreover, the scan of some lines is ambiguous; for example, one can debate which way the following line should be scanned:
The variability of accents at the beginning of lines made the text difficult to match with a typical trochaic tune. Insignificant words (such as “in”) would sometimes receive undue emphasis. Moreover, the changeability of accents from verse to verse made it hard to find a tune that would work for all verses—and hymns were always sung strophically (that is, with the same music for every verse).
So on one hand, the text was irresistible: it virtually had to be sung. On the other hand, it was nearly impossible to find a tune to which “O My Father” could be comfortably sung. The difficulty of finding a suitable tune, together with the imperative to do so, drove a parade of musical settings for “O My Father” through the nineteenth-century Church.
One of the earliest musical settings of “O My Father” was Stephen Foster’s 1856 parlor song “Gentle Annie.”Although the tune was far from hymnlike—and one had to fudge it a little to make Snow’s text fit—this setting was apt (see fig. 1). The tune was gently plaintive, enhancing the spirit of the words. And the opening of the lines in “Gentle Annie” contained ambiguities of accent similar to those in Snow’s poem. As early as 1855, the Deseret News observed that “O My Father” was Brigham Young’s favorite hymn, which ensured that it would be sung often. According to Heber J. Grant, “Gentle Annie” was the tune that President Young came to prefer—a point confirmed by Augusta Joyce Crocheron, who wrote:
I once heard Pres. Brigham Young, in the St. George Temple, designate his preference thus: “Will the Parowan choir please sing ‘O My Father,’ to that sweet, gentle air I love so well?” The air was “Gentle Annie,” a strange choice it sounded, but the effect proved the correctness of his taste.
Nevertheless, during the pioneer period, “O My Father” was more commonly sung to a melody completely different in spirit: a bouncy, martial tune known as “Harwell” (see fig. 2).This tune was far easier to sing than “Gentle Annie”—three of the four phrases of “Harwell” were identical to one another. And if the music seemed at odds with the poem’s contemplative tone, “Harwell” was nonetheless catchy and memorable—something like a bugle call—traits that suited it to congregational singing. Eliza Snow apparently did not object. In 1880, as the editor of the Primary’s Tune Book, Snow included “O My Father” set to the tune of “Harwell.”
In 1857 the first setting composed by a Latter-day Saint appeared. For his Latter Day Saints’ Psalmody, British convert John Tullidge composed settings of thirty-seven hymns for keyboard and choir. His setting of “O My Father” (see fig. 3)is relatively elaborate, with a somewhat disjunct opening line and, near the end of the hymn, alternations between three- and four-part textures. However noble the effort, Tullidge’s Psalmody never sold enough copies to make this setting known widely.
In 1863 the well-respected music teacher David Calder published a unique setting of “O My Father,” this one primarily for the use of youth choirs throughout Utah.Notated in the curious “Tonic Sol-Fa” system, this version features dynamic markings and fermatas to ensure that choirs render it with the proper expression (see fig. 4). It also turns the first two lines of the poem into a chorus to be sung at the end of each verse, a chorus in which the closing words “behold thy face” are to be sung three times. This setting may have been Calder’s own; it is unattributed but appears in no other known publication.
Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, “Gentle Annie,” “Harwell,” and the “Tonic Sol-Fa” setting all had some claim to “official” status. “Gentle Annie” was the favorite of the prophet; “Harwell” was the favorite of the people; and the “Tonic Sol-Fa” tune was the one being taught to hundreds of children in Calder’s singing schools—which themselves were endorsed throughout the territory by Brigham Young.But the year of Young’s death, 1877, ushered in a new era of “O My Father” settings.
At Young’s funeral, popular choir director C. J. Thomas led the Union Glee Club in singing Young’s favorite hymn to a fittingly solemn tune: the “Austrian Hymn” composed by Franz Josef Haydn (see fig. 5).While this tune suited the spirit of the funeral, it served the words poorly, giving heavy downbeat accentuation to words like “in” and “and.” Nevertheless, this setting became somewhat “official”—at least among the youth of the Church—by its inclusion in The Improvement Association Song Book (1887).
In the same month as Young’s funeral, Tabernacle Choir director George Careless published his own new version of “O My Father.” It was a nonstrophic anthem comprising only two verses—a solo and duet on the first verse and full choir on the second (see fig. 6).By having different music for each verse, Careless not only could distribute the textual accents differently, but could subtly dramatize the words. Although a version such as this may have attracted choir directors in search of new material, the setting weakened the text: “O My Father” badly needed its latter two verses—the one declaring the existence of a heavenly mother, the other asking for the poet to return after death to both heavenly parents.
The Deseret Sunday School Union soon published two fresh settings, one for congregations, the other for choirs. In 1879 they issued the jaunty new “O My Father” written by a young Welsh emigrant, Evan Stephens (see fig. 7). Similar to “Harwell” in character, it was considerably harder to sing. But it had the social virtue of being composed by a Latter-day Saint. Not only did this version appear in the Sunday School magazine, the Juvenile Instructor,but it was also issued on the official Sunday School music cards. Five years later, the Instructor published a markedly different setting by LDS composer A. C. Smyth (see fig. 8). Designed for a choir to sing, his “O My Father” was slow and sturdy, its phrases shaped by detailed dynamic markings. This setting was probably little used, although, under Ebeneezer Beesley’s direction, the Tabernacle Choir copied it into their choirbooks.
Perhaps the most curious setting of “O My Father” to appear during these years was Thomas Durham’s so-called “Nephite Lamentation”—curious, at least, in its origins. A longtime choir director in Parowan, Utah, Durham claimed the tune came to him in a dream about the aftermath of the great battle at the Hill Cumorah; in that dream, a Nephite survivor played the tune on a horn as a lament. According to Durham, “he missed the two high notes in the latter part of the tune, but I seemed to know what he was trying to get.”The Nephite played the tune twice, and Durham awoke and wrote it down. He soon began to use it as a setting for “O My Father.” It gained renown in Utah not only for its heavenly origins, but also for the graceful way that it handled the text. The beginning of each line consists of a lilting three-note figure that suits either a long-short or short-short pair of syllables with relative ease (see fig. 9).
Although Evan Stephens’s “O My Father” was probably little sung, it became the only version of “O My Father” to appear in the first official LDS hymnbook for sacrament meetings, the Latter-day Saints’ Psalmody (1889; republished regularly until 1927).Stephens was a member of the five-man committee who compiled the Psalmody, a committee that included George Careless and Ebenezer Beesley, who probably would have preferred other settings. Stephens’s setting, however, had two advantages: it had the imprimatur of the Sunday School, and Stephens had personally taught it to thousands of children enrolled in his music classes and choruses.
Two funerals in 1893 brought new settings of “O My Father” to the Saints’ attention. One setting never caught on; the other proceeded to eclipse every previous one and become the standard throughout the world.
For the funeral of his first wife, Lucy, Heber J. Grant asked that a mixed quartet sing “O My Father” to a tune from the first act of Friedrich von Flotow’s opera Martha (see fig. 10). In 1908 the Deseret Evening News claimed that Snow’s text “beautifully fitted” the “Martha” tune.In 1913 the Improvement Era published “O My Father” in that form; the following year, President Grant indirectly promoted the von Flotow setting in his article “Favorite Hymns.” As late as 1939, in Stories of Latter-day Saint Hymns, George Pyper extolled the effectiveness of this setting. But the melody was so plain and unsubtle in its handling of the textual accents that few would have been drawn to use it, especially given the enormous popularity of another 1893 setting.
By the 1890s, “gospel hymns” had become the favorite sacred music among Christians in the United States. Such hymns descended from the old camp-meeting and revival songs; they used dancelike rhythms, immediate repetitions of pitches, and infectious verse-chorus designs to make them instantly memorable. One popular gospel hymn was “My Redeemer” (1877) by James McGranahan. It featured a simple, swaying melody with male responsories in the chorus (see fig. 11).In 1893, at a funeral in Logan, Utah, Robert Easton sang the words of “O My Father” to the tune of “My Redeemer.” The joining of the two produced something akin to the “Nephite Lamentation” setting but even more meditative: the slow, constant repetition of individual pitches or small groups of pitch gave this “O My Father” an almost hypnotic quality it had never before found (see fig. 12).
Easton was a tenor soloist with the Tabernacle Choir, whose director, Evan Stephens, was always looking for ways to showcase the skills of his soloists. Stephens decided to have Easton and the choir sing an arrangement of “O My Father” to the tune of “My Redeemer” at the Salt Lake Temple dedication services in April 1893.There, an estimated audience of 50,000 people heard the arrangement. The consensus was almost instantaneous: here was an excellent setting, one that was in an up-to-date style and served the text well. Buoyed by the success of the arrangement, the choir took it on their Midwestern tour that summer (their first major foray outside the Rocky Mountain region), apparently using it to introduce Mormon doctrine to the general public.
The “My Redeemer” tune spread rapidly throughout the Church. The Tabernacle Choir sang it virtually everywhere they appeared. In 1895 the Church magazine the Contributor published it.In 1899 this treatment of “O My Father” showed up in a new edition of the Sunday School hymnal and in LDS hymnbooks for non-English-speaking Saints. The popularity of the new setting dismayed Evan Stephens, who in that same year publicly repented of ever having used the “My Redeemer” tune, which he called the “‘Eastern’ tune.” He thought that it was in poor taste to link a text so sublime to a gospel hymn, music he considered the equivalent of “cheese-cloth.” And he believed strongly that LDS composers should set LDS texts. Their settings, he insisted, should bespeak “optimism” (as his “O My Father” did) rather than “gloomy solemnity.”
But the popularity of the “My Redeemer” tune could not be quelled by Stephens’s opinions. In 1908 the mission presidents of the Church jointly published a new hymnal in English, The Songs of Zion. It contained only one tune for “O My Father”—“My Redeemer.”The following year, the Sunday School completely revamped its songbook; the new edition, Deseret Sunday School Songs, omitted Stephens’s setting altogether and included two other settings instead: “My Redeemer” and the “Austrian Hymn.”
Meanwhile, the Tabernacle Choir made its first commercial recordings. Among the four songs it recorded in 1908 was “O My Father” in the arrangement that had become so popular. This recording suggests why the choir’s performances of this setting may have been so appealing to the tastes of the era.The whole tenor section (not a soloist) sings the melody at a ponderous tempo—so slow that the nearly four-minute recording can contain only two verses (the first and last). And the entire choir sings with scooping portamenti that virtually overwhelm the listener with heartfelt sentiment.
In the 1920s, after stepping down as Tabernacle Choir director, Stephens continued to oppose the “My Redeemer” setting that he had popularized. When Victor Recordings asked to record the song for a collection of Mormon hymns in 1923, Stephens made the case to the Church Music Committee that to use the “My Redeemer” tune would be illegal on copyright grounds.(But the recording was still made; it features the “Trinity Mixed Quartet” performing verses 1, 3, and 4 of “O My Father.”) As a member of the same committee, Stephens also voted to produce a new hymnbook to replace the Psalmody, the only book in the Church that still included his old setting of “O My Father.” For the new hymnal, Latter-day Saint Hymns (1927), Stephens composed yet another setting of “O My Father,” this one even more bombastic than his previous one (see fig. 13). The “My Redeemer” setting also appeared in this hymnbook, a comfortable 361 pages away from Stephens’s—not in the form of a congregational hymn, but in Stephens’s Tabernacle Choir arrangement.
However, with Stephens no longer in charge, the Tabernacle Choir continued to sing the “My Redeemer” setting for concerts and national radio broadcasts. Most listeners adored it; “O My Father” became one of the choir’s most requested songs.Still, not everyone admired it. At a concert in San Francisco in response to a request from President J. Reuben Clark, the Tabernacle Choir sang all four verses of “O My Father.” As director Spencer Cornwall recalls, the local newspaper said, “We liked all the numbers except the interminable ‘O My Father.’” And even the Church’s president, Heber J. Grant, was quoted as saying that the “My Redeemer” tune is “not majestic enough” for “O My Father.” “It is too sentimental,” he is quoted as saying, “and it’s too secular.”
In 1944 the First Presidency (under Grant’s direction) directed the Church Music Committee to consolidate the three principal Church songbooks in English—Songs of Zion, Deseret Sunday School Songs, and Latter-day Saint Hymns—into one new volume. All three of those books had included the “My Redeemer” setting. But each of the latter two contained an additional setting: the “Austrian Hymn” version and Stephens’s second setting, respectively. Although the committee was not yet ready to make McGranahan’s tune the only official one for “O My Father,” they voted to remove both of the others. No one sang Stephens’s setting (and having died in 1930, he could not argue for its inclusion). The “Austrian Hymn” had become unusable because of its association with Nazi Germany; as “Deutschland über alles,” it had become the veritable theme song of the Third Reich. So the new consolidated hymnbook, Hymns: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1948), included the “My Redeemer” setting (which it subtitled “Familiar Tune”) and “Harwell”—which, after all, President Grant had preferred to the other settings.
By the 1970s, “My Redeemer” was the only setting of “O My Father” in most international hymnbooks of the Church. But in 1974, a new committee was appointed to consider revising the current English-language hymnbook and to make the others conform to it. The committee considered both of the then-current tunes for “O My Father” and wrote comments. Of the venerable “Harwell,” it said, “This setting has not caught on with the Saints. The music might make a good priesthood hymn.” Of the “My Redeemer” tune, the committee wrote: “Of course, this must stay.”Although the hymnbook revision was shelved until the 1980s, subsequent committees concurred with the earlier recommendation and voted to make “My Redeemer” the only tune for “O My Father” in all LDS hymnbooks.
More or less, this setting of “O My Father” has been canonized. And in the canonization, one can learn something of the values that shape the Mormon musical experience. First, Mormons prize familiarity and ease of expression above sophistication and complexity; in Book of Mormon terms, they delight in “plainness” (2 Ne. 31:3). “My Redeemer” has endured not necessarily because it is the best setting, according to some aesthetic criterion, but because it works the best as a setting that people can sing. Second, when necessary, Latter-day Saints feel free to import plainness from other churches. Even though the pioneer virtue of self-reliance infuses Mormon life, members of the Church happily adopt from others whatever serves their particular religious needs. Third, sacred music—within certain limits—cannot be dictated to the Latter-day Saints but must be embraced by them. The efforts of certain Church musicians notwithstanding, Mormons at large reject any setting but the one they find most pleasing. They will sing only music that wins their hearts. The canonization of the tune for “O My Father” also demonstrates something about the processes of history itself—how, as time unfolds, the seemingly coincidental can lead to aptness, the serendipitous become the inevitable.