Saturday, February 12, 2005
Commentary for the Hymn "Tis Good Lord to be Here"
This hymn is number 778 in our green gather hymnals. The tune often given to go with this hymn is "Potsdam" by Johann S. Bach, 1750. The notes in our hymnal say the tune is SWABIA, written by Johann M. Spiess, 1715-1772, and was then adapted by William Havergal.
If you are a German language speaker, you may have noticed that the pronunciation of Spiess that I am using follows the i-e spelling rather than the e-i spelling that is in the notes of this hymn. It appears that the spelling of Johann M. Spiess in our hymnal might be a misprint, judging by how many other citations out there use the Spiess spelling rather than the Speiss spelling.
The first order of business is to look at the three tunes to see how similar they are.
Here is what Potsdam sounds like. This file was created from a midi prepared by R. Jordan. It’s in the key of E Major.
Here is the tune called Swabia. R. Jordan sequenced this version in midi. It’s in the key of D Major. The name Swabia is from the German Schwaben, which is a historic region of southwestern Germany. It includes what is now the southern portion of Baden-Württemberg and the southwestern part of Bavaria in Germany, as well as eastern Switzerland and Alsace.
Swabia's name is derived from that of the Suebi, a Germanic people who, with the Alemanni, occupied the upper Rhine and upper Danube region in the 3rd century.
And finally, here is the tune for Tis Good, Lord, to Be Here, from our green gather hymnal. It’s in the key of C Major and was also sequenced by R. Jordan. This is the adaptation of Swabia by William H. Havergal.
You should be able to hear the similarities of all three songs and how the hymn works within the meter of the tune.
The biblical passage from which this hymn is based is Luke chapter nine verses 32 – 33. I’m going to read verses 28 through 45. This is the story of the transfiguration.
28 Some eight days after these sayings, He took along Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.
29 And while He was praying, the appearance of His face became different, and His clothing became white and gleaming.
30 And behold, two men were talking with Him; and they were Moses and Elijah,
31 who, appearing in glory, were speaking of His departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
32 Now Peter and his companions had been overcome with sleep; but when they were fully awake, they saw His glory and the two men standing with Him.
33 And as these were leaving Him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three tabernacles: one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah" -- not realizing what he was saying.
34 While he was saying this, a cloud formed and began to overshadow them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud.
35 Then a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!"
36 And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent, and reported to no one in those days any of the things which they had seen.
37 On the next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met Him.
38 And a man from the crowd shouted, saying, "Teacher, I beg You to look at my son, for he is my only boy,
39 and a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly screams, and it throws him into a convulsion with foaming at the mouth; and only with difficulty does it leave him, mauling him as it leaves.
40 "I begged Your disciples to cast it out, and they could not."
41 And Jesus answered and said, "You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you and put up with you? Bring your son here."
42 While he was still approaching, the demon slammed him to the ground and threw him into a convulsion. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, and healed the boy and gave him back to his father.
43 And they were all amazed at the greatness of God But while everyone was marveling at all that He was doing, He said to His disciples,
44 "Let these words sink into your ears; for the Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men."
45 But they did not understand this statement, and it was concealed from them so that they would not perceive it; and they were afraid to ask Him about this statement.
Joseph A. Robinson was born 1858 and died 1933. He therefore lived and worked later than either Bach, who wrote Potsdam in 1750, or Johann Spiess, who wrote Swabia in 1745.
Robinson took these biblical verses from Luke and wrote the words that appear in this song in our hymnal. There is a note in our hymnal that the tune was adapted by William H. Havergal, who lived from 1793 to 1870. The Havergal arrangement of Swabia is also used by Isaac Watts in a hymn called Behold What Wondrous Grace.
Here are the words to the hymn. The realization and the celebration of the transfiguration are captured by these verses.
1. 'Tis good, Lord, to be here,
Thy glory fills the night;
Thy face and garments, like the sun,
Shine with unborrowed light.
2. 'Tis good, Lord, to be here,
Thy beauty to behold
Where Moses and Elijah stand,
Thy messengers of old.
3. Fulfiller of the past,
Promise of things to be,
We hail Thy body glorified
And our redemption see.
4. Before we taste of death,
We see Thy kingdom come;
We fain would hold the vision bright
And make this hill our home.
5. 'Tis good, Lord, to be here.
Yet we may not remain;
But since Thou bidst us leave the mount,
Come with us to the plain.
Of course, our hymnal replaces the word thy with your and the word fain with long, but other than that the words to the hymn are original to Robinson. The themes of the transfiguration, the hint of things to come, redemption, and the desire that if we cannot stay upon the mountain then at least have Jesus come with us to the plain below are images from Luke that are brought to life by this hymn.
Let’s look at the parts of the piece. The soprano line starts on G5. G5 and C5 as well as C6 are the prominent or milestone notes. Here is the soprano part.
The alto part provides a bit of closure in measure three when the alto note coincides with the soprano for the dotted half note at C5. The alto part provides the second half of the eighth-note movement in measure four, which provides for a feeling of movement in the piece without burdening any one line with too many eighth-notes. Everyone shares in these eighth-notes, with the tenor part getting all of theirs in the last measure and the bass part having two separate eighth-note parts. The soprano and alto parts are right by each other in measure four. Measure six and seven for all parts, but perhaps especially the alto part, provide a solid rhythm that anchors the eighth-note sections of measure eight.
The tenor part has a more difficult first half. The B4 note of the second beat in measure four and the first three beats of measure five are possibly the most tricky notes to hit. The first B4 is important because it provides a base for the middle of the eighth-note passage that the sopranos and altos are doing. With both of the upper parts moving relatively quickly compared to the tenor part, it might be a challenging note. The second B4 note, the dotted half note in measure five, is important because it’s being held three beats. The last two beats of the tenor line are fun, since they swoop down to E4. Here is the tenor line.
The first key note for the bass line is the dotted half note that begins measure three. It’s counterintuitive, at least to me, and since it’s held for three beats, and since it anchors the beginning of the eighth-note movement in measure four and well as supporting a key melodic note sung by the soprano line, it needs to be strong and true. The dotted half note that starts measure five might feel much more natural. This is a good thing, because the last half of the bass line is challenging. The first note of measure seven is A4, which is pretty high. The line drops down an octave in the last two beats of measure eight, from G4 to G3, then up to C4 to resolve the final chord.
Putting all the parts together for one final listen. Here is Tis Good, Lord, to Be Here, number 778 in our green gather hymnal.