Week 11: Rare Meters



Be Thou My Vision

Text: Traditional Irish, c. 750

Tune: Traditional Irish, 1909

  1. The meter of this hymn is based on groups of three syllables rather than groups of two like most of the hymns we’ve studied so far. How would you describe the “feeling” of this meter? Does it match the content of the text?

  2. To say this hymn is popular would be an understatement – a number of surveys in the past decade have consistently placed it in the top 5 “favorite” hymns. Why do you think this hymn has endeared itself to so many people? What features of the text or tune help in that regard?

    • The text is aspirational (inspiring) in nature, and general enough to apply to a wide swath of people
    • The tune is simultaneously both easy to sing and interesting melodically
      • The melody covers an octave and a half between its highest and lowest points – lots of melodic power
      • It uses mostly stepwise motion with no large jumps, and sticks almost entirely to the pentatonic scale

O Laughing Light

Text: Silvia Dunstan (1955–1993), 1987

Tune: John R. Van Maanen (1958– ), 1998

  1. The meter used by this hymn is, known as “Sapphic” meter because of its relation to the ancient Greek poet Sappho who used the same syllable pattern. What problems can you see that make writing in this meter difficult? How does Dunstan work around them in the text? How does the music help support the words in this meter?

    • Classical poetry in Sapphic meter includes the dactylic (triple) foot in the middle of the line, this is hard to work with in music
      • Almost all hymns in this meter place the triple foot at the start of the line, followed by four trochaic feet
    • The last line is very short and risks becoming a kind of “afterthought”
      • The tune keeps motion in the melody line to connect the last phrase with the one before it
    • The typical rhyme scheme is ABAB, but this can make the text feel unbalanced due to the truncated last line
      • One could use a rhyme scheme of AAAB instead, but this only accents the short line
      • Here, Dunstan forgoes rhyme entirely and uses a parallel structure on the final line to tie the hymn together
  2. The opening phrase is certainly a unique one – “O Laughing Light”. Does it change your perception of God at all? Does it fit the mood and intention of the original “Phos Hilaron” text? What about the rest of the hymn?

    • “Hilaron” in Greek is the root of our word “hilarious”
      • The same word is used in the New Testament passage of 2 Corinthians 9:7: “God loves a cheerful giver”
      • In the direct transliteration we see it as “gladsome”

Fairest Lord Jesus

Text: Anonymous, 1662

Tune: Anonymous, 1842

  1. Appropriately for a folk song from a rural area of Europe, the theme of nature figures prominently in this text. How does this compare to other hymns that talk about nature, such as “This is My Father’s World”, “Great is Thy Faithfulness”, or “How Great Thou Art”? What similarities are there? What is unique about “Fairest Lord Jesus”?

  2. The meter used here is quite irregular, with a mixture of two-syllable and three-syllable groups throughout. Does that irregularity come across when singing the hymn? What factors help keep method in the madness?

    • The tune uses repeated rhythms in measures 1-2, 9-10, and 11-12 (with 3-4 similar also)
    • The final four measures help mask the strong beats in measures 12-13 with steady repeated melody notes which gives each syllable equal weight in a spot where the syllable accents would normally conflict with the musical emphasis