I’ve always enjoyed the hymn tune Slane. It’s probably best known as Be Thou My Vision, though I learned it in school as Lord Of All Hopefulness. It’s a traditional Irish tune, and a very beautiful one too.
But what makes a tune beautiful? That’s impossible to answer fully, and your opinions may differ from mine. But if we take time to look closely, we can identify how a tune creates patterns of pitch and rhythm, how it blends unity and variety, and how together this can tell a story.
The basic proportions of this particular hymn are very ordinary: sixteen bars in four-bar phrases, with four lines of lyrics. But while many folk tunes would use formal repetition – AABA for example – all four phrases here are distinct.
Nonetheless, various elements create internal patterning. Most clearly, the phrases of this tune all have a ‘rhythmic rhyme’ – they end with three crotchets and one minim. This ties the tune together.
Another common feature is the arcing pitch shape. From the opening E flat the melody gradually climbs to the E flat an octave higher at best in the third phrase, and eventually comes back to the low E flat at the end. This kind of form makes intuitive sense to us – it’s like a life in miniature: growth, culmination, and decline, returning to where we started.
So far, so broadly symmetrical, you could say. But there is also a story of transformation here too.
Specifically, there’s a change in the way the melody moves. It uses the pentatonic scale, albeit embellished with a D in the third phrase. But the first two phrases only move by pentatonic step. This makes them easy to sing, with no interval larger than a minor third – but not especially dramatic. The tune seems to be feeling its way.
But after the peak at best, we gain the ability to bound larger intervals. This culminates in a rising arpeggio that takes successive leaps in the final phrase (both waking and sleeping).
In other words, the melody opens up. It moves from tentativeness to confidence.
Now let’s look at the smaller details in each phrase. Because they reveal just how much a sixteen-bar hymn tune can teach us about intelligent musical construction.
In the first phrase, there are two patterns which help to ground us in the 3/4 metre. The first two bars are identical in rhythm, and a repeated E flat marks out the ‘strong’ first and third bars – Be thou and Lord of.
At the same time we have quaver couplets, which give the phrase a gently ambling feel. But these quavers have a role to play: whenever they appear, the line changes direction. They make the melody undulate with a little kick of energy.
A playful tension arises: since these quavers are on the last beat of the bar, the switch in direction creates contours that don’t align with the metre. The words emphasise these shapes too – my vision goes down, O Lord of my heart comes back up. (And how wonderful that a third quaver couplet pops up at the upbeat to the second phrase, like a delayed punchline – ‘here I am again’!)
Compare this to the next line. After the upbeat, the ambling quavers disappear. We have four F crotchets – all else but naught. In one sense, this is a development of the repeating note pattern from the first line. But more importantly, it’s withholding movement, and making us wait.
As the rest of the phrase unfurls out from these Fs, it seems to have a new gravitas – the character of this tune is evolving. But even as the pitch movement is slowly released, the rhythm remains stubbornly plodding. And this is all to better dramatise the climax that comes next.
The third phrase begins with another variation of the repeating note pattern, but now it flows into the longest run of quavers, leading up to the summit. It’s also the first time the ‘leading note’ D is heard. This combination makes a fine expressive flourish – even better, its united with the word best.
But the height of the climax is followed by a long drop down. This is doubly dramatic, and also balances out the phrase. It’s the start of the melody’s transformation to expansiveness.
And yet there is even more patterning woven in as the melody descends. Look at thought in the day. It uses the same pitches as save that thou art in the previous line. The climb up to the peak has become the climb down.
What’s more, that the dramatic dip at the end of the phrase is another echo – it’s none other than uppermost best thought in, transposed down an octave and rhythmically augmented, blurred into the upbeat for the next phrase.
This is especially poetic, because low pitch combined with slow speed is something we associate with decline and death (think dirges). So there is a little allusion of transience here: the point of highest energy has directly transformed into the lowest ebb.
Finally, with the bounding arpeggio of the fourth phrase, the tune feels liberated. Loose ends can be tied up: the quaver couplets from the first phrase return, but now on the ‘strong’ first beat of the bar at sleeping. The tension between pitch-shapes and metre is emphatically resolved.
The final couplet also makes a longer rhythmic rhyme with the first line (O Lord of my heart / thy presence my light), cementing an extra sense of circularity. And the repeated-note pattern which started the first three phrases also sneaks in at the very end.
There’s much more that could be said about this hymn, not least its wonderfully sensitive harmonisation by Erik Routley in the English Hymnal, which I absolutely love – it complements the melody beautifully.
This is by no means a total explanation of why Slane is an enduringly popular hymn tune. But I hope I’ve shown some of the ways that, even just with pitch and rhythm, a short melody can create a compelling musical structure.
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