Sally DeFord’s “Be Thou My Vision”

This week, by request, we’re going to look at another of Sally DeFord’s arrangements, “Be Thou My Vision” for SSAATB choir, piano and C instrument obbligato

If you are looking for music for a particular topic or a good arrangement of a particular hymn, please send your requests my way! I’ll look at any pieces you’d like me to review though I may not publish a full review. 

Details at a Glance

  • Voicing: SSAATB, C instrument, and piano
  • Lyrics: Old Irish, Byrne/Hull, with additional lyrics by Sally DeFord
  • Language: English
  • Key(s): D, E-flat, F
  • Difficulty:
    • Choir: moderate
    • Piano: moderate
    • Obbligato C instrument: Despite the stated flexibility, given the part’s range of A4 to G6, this is in truth a flute part that can be played on the violin. It’s comfortable for a Band grade 3 flute player. It’ll sound fine on a violin, but that range makes it slightly more challenging—roughly Suzuki 5/ABRSM 5-6/RCM 4-5/ASTA 4 level. An advanced oboist could also play the part, but because it lies so high, it won’t be the most flattering sound.
  • Duration: 4:15 min.
  • Pages: 7
  • Price: free
  • Alternate versions: Solo and piano; Solo, obbligato instrument, and piano
  • Download Site: defordmusic.com/song-list/be-thou-my-vision/
  • Listen: No choral recording exists, but here’s the solo version to the text of “Away in a Manger”

Review

My review last week drew responses from both the dismissive and supportive circles surrounding Sally DeFord’s music. I hadn’t intended to write about her music for a second week in a row, but a Facebook commenter requested I review her arrangement “Be Thou My Vision.” I hadn’t heard the arrangement before, and on the whole, I found it to be rather lovely. The atmosphere and spirit of the piece really took me it. Thus, digging into it I found myself disappointed as I uncovered the rough edges in its part writing.

The text is a prayer to God, pleading that He will be the singer’s vision, wisdom, and treasure. This message resonates strongly with Elder Bednar’s recent talk about meekness.

The arrangement’s four verses are arranged as follows: (1) women in unison, (2) women and men in loose imitation, (3) full choir, (4) full choir. Although it’s billed as a 6-part arrangement, DeFord only ever writes for five parts at a time and the altos divide only twice (m. 38-43, 81). Overall, the music’s voicing (SSAATB) belies its fundamental simplicity.

As with the DeFord piece I reviewed last week, the musical conception is compelling but the execution, though mostly good, has some rough patches. Verses 1 and 2 are fine and should require minimal rehearsal, with most of the time focused on the women’s parts in mm. 31-43.

Verses 3 and 4 are where the rough edges start showing. Overall, the men’s parts are mostly straightfoward and unproblematic. The soprano divisi also should pose a minimal challenge. The real sticking point in this arrangement is the alto part.

You will need to sing through verses 3 and 4 for parts slowly at least once. Focus especially on the beginning of these verses. The unison passages at their ends are straightforward, and you’ll waste rehearsal time if you sing through them every time you work on a particular verse.

These are the specific passages that may require careful rehearsal:

  • bar 31-32: Be sure to point out to the women that the changes in the melody (compare these bars with mm. 10-11). Have them circle the two changed pitches if they need a reminder.
  • bar 43: I’d give the F# on “Great” to the second sopranos rather than the first altos. This makes the voice leading easier for the both alto parts.
  • bar 51: Beat 3 should be a quarter note for altos, tenors, and basses.
  • bars 53-55: The alto part here is tricky because it doesn’t move to C with the piano on beat 3 of bar 53 and because the altos don’t step up from D in 54 to E-flat in 55. The other parts shouldn’t have problems in this passage.
  • bar 60: The altos needlessly leap to G as a pick-up to 61. I’d keep them on the E-flat throughout this bar.
  • bars 65-66: The men may struggle with these parallel fifths
  • bar 81: Alto 1 should move to a G when alto 2 moves to E.

If you look at the above notes, you’ll notice that six out of the seven problem spots in this arrangement arise from awkward part writing or poor notation on DeFord’s part. This lack of professional polish is why I was disappointed on digging into the arrangement: these issues nearly all have simple fixes, but their presence makes this beautiful piece needlessly more difficult.

Still, as long as you have a strong pianist or some choir members who are confident in their parts, it should be learnable in 3-4 rehearsals. Choirs lacking in women or whose altos aren’t confident readers will want to choose a different arrangement.

Conclusion

Overall, Sally DeFord’s “Be Thou My Vision” is a beautiful arrangment that is somewhat more difficult to sing that what it should be. The piece’s alto part is its most difficult, though a few of the alto’s infelicities may be ironed out per my suggestions above. If the sound and message of the arrangement speaks to you, go ahead and perform it. Personally, I would probably choose either to perform the solo version of this song (which doesn’t have the part-writing issues) or a different arrangement all together.

Theory Corner: Part Writing

Scholar David Huron explains that part writing (also called “voice leading”) “has been variously defined, but one simple definition is that it is the art of combining concurrent musical lines or melodies.” He continues, “The practice became codified into a set of recommendations (do’s and don’ts)” around the 1500s. These recommendations have evolved over the years along with changes in style, taste, and insight.

Fully trained musicians recognize that mastering part writing requires more than simple adherence to these rules. As a simplification of musical practice, the rules cannot cover every scenario. In certain situations, the rules may contradict each other. At other times, the goal underlying a particular rule may not align with the composer’s musical goal. Thus, though students of part writing begin by learning some basic rules, they best master the art is by studying masterworks.

Without “dumping the whole load of hay,” as Elder Maxwell once put it, here are two brief examples to consider:

Most amateur musicians recognize Bach as one of these master composers, but a composer they may not know is Palestrina. Palestrina’s “Sicut Cervus” is breathtaking not only for the beauty of its sound but for the grace of its voice leading. Each of its five parts are graceful to sing and seem to fit effortlessly with the other voices:

Good part-writing is not only the provenance of master composers. Professional choral composers also distinguish themselves by their voice leading. Part of the reason Eric Whitacre is famous for his cluster sound is not only because it’s breathtaking but also because he wrote the parts in such a way that this effect is as easy as possible to achieve:

Closer to home, listen to Ronald Staheli’s version of “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.” (You can find the music on holysheetmusic.com.) It is another excellent example of professional-level voice leading, but in a familiar, LDS context:

Learning to identify good part writing can especially be a challenge for amateur musicians who lack the time and resources to devote to its study. That’s part of the reason I’m writing this blog—to help you discern quality craft beyond mere surface beauty and, in turn, to help you see how an understanding of craft enables you to see beauty and feel the Spirit in ways that require sensitivity to these details.

4 thoughts on “Sally DeFord’s “Be Thou My Vision”

  1. Reply
    Niki George - May 6, 2018

    Thank you for this review! I will put your suggestions suggestions into action! I so appreciate your help!!

    1. Reply
      Joseph - May 6, 2018

      Sure thing! Glad it could have been helpful. Let me know what other pieces you want me to look at the future, too! I really enjoy looking at music and sharing how it works.

  2. Reply
    Julie - June 1, 2018

    I’m trying to find an MP3 of Deford’s song “Be Thou My Vision” that plays just the vocal parts. My choir needs to hear their parts played out.

    1. Reply
      Joseph - June 1, 2018

      As I look over the webpage for the song, I’m not sure that such a thing exists. 🙁 If you absolutely need those tracks, your best bet would be entering the parts into Musescore and then exporting the audio. Unfortunately, that would also be super time-consuming. I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful!

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