Survey Review: “Lead, Kindly Light”

This week we look at hymn 97, “Lead, Kindly Light.” When I went searching for arrangements I found dozens of options. For all the attention this hymn has received, surprisingly few of these options are worth singing. Fewer still are sacrament-meeting appropriate.

After highlighting the best arrangements and original settings, I’ve listed a sampling of some of the others.

Bread and Butter Arrangements

David Naylor

If you’re looking for a straightforward, 2-part version of the hymn, look no further than Naylor’s graceful arrangement (Sheet Music Plus with discount, PDF download). His arrangment has by far the easiest choral writing of my recommended versions, but though the choral writing is simple, it’s still artful.

Mack Wilberg

Wilberg’s version of this hymn is a classic. It was also written for a skilled, university-level choir. If you have a good organist and a large, talented choir, it’s absolutely worth singing. Enough said.

David Zabriskie

Zabriskie’s arrangement exists in several versions: SATB choir (in G); two versions for solo voice and piano (high in G and medium in E-flat); and even a version for solo voice and orchestra (in G). I was really taken by both the SATB and solo with orchestra versions. Zabriskie’s version is just as sophisticated as Wilberg’s but is a little lighter emotionally and has greater sense of quiet dignity. Zabriskie also irons out some of the hymn’s awkward word placement relative to the meter (e.g., the placement of “the” on the downbeat in “I do not ask to see / the distant scene”).

New and Unusual Settings

Lex de Azavedo

De Azavedo’s arrangement looks promising on paper, calling for 2-part choir, violin, and piano. In practice, it is more of a violin solo with choral and piano accompaniment than it is a choral arrangement. It’s fine for sacrament meeting, but would be better for a fireside.

Dan Forrest

Dan Forrest is one of America’s more prominent choral composers. In his version for SATB and piano, Forrest sets the text to a new melody. It’s more a concert piece than a sacrament-meeting appropriate one. That said, if you are assembling a musical fireside with a skilled choir and pianist, this version is fresh, artistic, and worth your consideration.

Howard Goodall

Howard Goodall is a tremendously accomplished British composer. So much so he has a wikipedia page and a CBE to his name. Goodall also sets “Lead, Kindly Light” to a new melody for SATB and piano. His music gives an enegetic, hopeful feel to the traditional words. Like Forrest’s version, you probably wouldn’t sing it in sacrament meeting, but it is worth considering for a fireside.

John Henry Mauder

Mauder wrote an early arrangement of the hymn that frames the hymn within a story recounted for tenor (or soprano) solo. It’s an unusual conceit (though also taken up in Bonnie Heidenreich’s version) and could work in a fireside setting.

Still Other Versions

A beloved hymn, “Lead, Kindly Light” has inspired dozens of other vocal arrangements and settings. I’ve highlighted the ones most worth considering above. Here are some of the others I found: Betsy Lee Bailey (AB and piano); Katie Bastian (A solo); Curtis Fletcher (SA duet, also S solo); Grace Hegy (SATB and piano); Robert Lehman (SATB and organ); Chris Leonard (TTBB, which—I’m sorry—reminds me of Buckaroo Bonzai); Bonnie Heidenreich (TTBB, piano, and narrator); and Philip Paluszak (SATB and organ). There are still other vocal/choral versions, but the quality continues to drop off.

Lastly, though these reviews are mostly supposed for be for choral arrangements, I will mention two instrumental versions. Douglas Pew’s arrangement for violin, cello, and piano is lovely and emotional. It would be a great version for a stake conference or a fireside. I also have an arrangement for flute (or violin) and piano to which I’m (understandably) partial.

Summary

For your typical ward choir director, choosing a good version of “Lead, Kindly Light” to sing comes down to three options: Naylor, Wilberg, and Zabriskie. The sweet spot of performability versus novelty is Zabriskie’s SATB version. It was a real discovery—a gorgeous version that deserves more performances. Start there.

If you need an easier-still version, go with Naylor’s. If you have a more accomplished choir, want a bigger sound, and don’t mind its ubiquity, go with Wilberg’s version.

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