I don’t know the exact year, but when my mother was in her early 30’s, she wrote a three-stanza poem that began “Dear Father, hear the prayer.” She set it to the popular 100-year-old hymn tune known as “Serenity,” based on the music of 19th-century Irish-born composer William V. Wallace. (See their pictures at right.) It was in this form that her hymn was published, and those of you who were able to attend Mother’s funeral honored her by singing it.
I have been going through her papers, and this week I discovered a 1999 note she had written (but never sent) to my wife Adrianne, in which she asked Adrianne to call her some day and (over the phone from Michigan) to play the hymn for her on the piano. In that note, I learned for the first time that Mother had given it a formal title, the “Western Boulevard Presbyterian Church Prayer.” I have prepared an edition of it, below, reflecting that title.
Mother was very active in that church in Raleigh, NC, as a participant and leader in the ladies’ Circles, serving as occasional organist and, when not at the keyboard, singing in the choir beside me (I was a boy soprano). We were members there (and the poem was written) while the pastors were Dr. Robert Bluford (1951-1957) and Rev. Russell Fleming (1958-1970). After my father’s death, Mother married my step-father there in 1985. (Click on the music above to view/download a .PDF of the hymn.)
The hymn’s music began its life as a love ballad titled The winds that waft my sighs to thee for soprano and piano by composer William Vincent Wallace, to words provided by poet H. W. Challis. (See full text at bottom.) So popular did the song become that it was included in the 1895 volume The Good Old Songs We Used to Sing, is part of a new CD just released last month of the songs of W. V. Wallace, and even merited an allusion in James Joyce’s very profane Ulysses. I confess I have never read Ulysses, nor do I ever intend to. But my research for this article revealed that, so vulgar and obscene is the context in which Joyce inserted the song’s title, Wallace would almost certainly not have wanted that particular accolade!
In 1856 the song’s melody (originally written in the unusual 9/8 meter) was arranged by Uzziah Christopher Burnap into the hymn form we know today. The melody changed meter from 9/8 to 3/4 and the rhythm was somewhat altered, but the lyrical support for the 8-6-8-6 iambic form (“ta-DA ta-DA ta-DA,” etc.) was cemented. Several hymn settings have been made over the years with Burnap’s arrangement, including ones using poems by writers as diverse as Bernard of Clairvaus (“O Jesus, King most wonderful”), John Greenleaf Whittier (“Immortal love, forever full”), and Mary Baker Eddy (“Blest Christmas morn”). Though being on such a list was never a part of Mother’s motivation, nevertheless, how wonderful that she is there!
The song’s original lyrics, written by H. W. Challis:
The winds that waft my sighs to thee,
And o’er thy tresses steal;
Oh! let them tell a tale for me,
My lips dare not reveal!
And as they murmur soft and clear
The love I would impart;
Believe the whispers thou dost hear
Are breathings of my heart.
Yet if perchance their mission fail
Thy coldness to remove,
And night winds with their plaintive wail
Bring back my prefere’d love!
Then think, whene’er thou look’st on high
And see’st the light depart;
Those clouds, storm driven o’er the sky,
Are shadows of my heart.
What may be the first recording ever of the original Wallace song was released in America in January 2014. (See album cover above.) One may purchase either an MP3 of the song or the complete CD. It is also available on iTunes.
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