Ives's song text is the fervent old hymn Reverend Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847) wrote at the very close of his life. When these words were coupled to the hymntune Eventide, composed by William H. Monk in 1861, the result was so successful it became a much loved staple of many turn-of-the-century protestant hymnals.
Lyte's lines are cast in reasonably regular iambic pentameter with the unvarying rhyme scheme AABB. Yet Monk's music abundantly demonstrates the problem of all strophic songs and hymntunes: the musical contour--fit to the opening verse--repeats unchanged while, in subsequent verses,the location of the poetic caesuras and important words vary.
Actually, one can't help noting that Monk's melody doesn't fit even the opening verse of Lyte's text very well (the misaccent on the opening syllable and similar trangressions in the next two lines are ready clues). Was this what prompted the precocious Charles Ives to use the text for his hymn-like song in 1890?   Apparently not. It seems neither composer was much concerned with poetic subtleties, for Ives's tune doesn't fit the words well either, and shows similar faults in the very same places.
Whatever his purpose, Ives refitted the text with a melody that probably didn't seem quite right at the time. It still tweaks some ears with what seem like 'wrong' notes. It's just that he uses a scale which has both a lowered and a natural seventh, and the result is a tonal tune with a savory mixolydian flavor and enough strangeness about it to unsettle most first-time listeners:
Here is Ives's haunting melody cast in Kodaly solfege notation, where syllables for notes below the primary octave are followed by a comma, and those above the octave are followed by an apostrophe:
Sol, doh doh ti, re doh | doh te, ti, re sol, mi |
Fa mi ti, doh re mi la sol | doh te, ti, re sol, doh |
Te, la, la, sol, la, te, doh sol, | sol, la, te, re fa sol sol |
Le sol fa mi re doh' ti la sol | doh te, ti, re sol, doh |
Ives made some minor additions to Lyte's poem (shown in brackets below) and selected the three of Lyte's five verses that best fit his music. He probably felt the striking major seventh leap with which he graced the last line didn't fall effectively in the other verses.
1. Abide with me: fast falls the eventide;In his book, All Made of Tunes, J. Peter Burkholder wrote: "Although [Monk's] Eventide could hardly be more hymnlike, moving diatonically within the range of a sixth, Ives's melody has the shape of a vocal solo, with twice as wide a range, expressive dynamics, some chromaticism, and a leap of a seventh up to the high point, just before the close."
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide:
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O [Lord,] abide with me.
3. I need Thy presence every passing hour;
[O] What but Thy grace can foil the Tempter's power?
Who like Thyself my guide [my guide] and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, O [Lord,] abide with me.
5. Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies;
Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
Ives has unquestionably lifted this hymn to a higher artistic plane by converting it into an exquisite vocal solo. Certainly it would fit well in a recital section of contrafacta or 'remarkable refits'--well known texts or melodies, presented in a more recent musical frame. Such gems as Rorem's reharmonization of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, or another hymntune, Shall we Gather at the River by either Aaron Copland or Ives (or both) come quickly to mind. And from there it's but a small step to things like Alban Berg's several settings of Schliesse mir, die Augen beide, where Berg's early, hymn-like setting, written in 1907, would offer an interesting comparison with Ives.
Even today, Ives's lovely melody--now well over a century old--strikes many as being distinctly anachronistic: an audaciously modern musical treatment for a staid old hymn. He would surely be pleased by that.
Abide with Me, by Charles Ives, was published in the album Thirteen Songs for Voice and Piano, by Peer International Corporation, New York, in 1958.
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