Distress

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An intense, dark setting of a classic Southern Harmony hymn tune and poem.


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PROGRAM NOTES

This poem, though written in 1760 as a hymn and appearing in Southern Harmony and other hymnals, is not so much theological as it is a heart-wrenching expression of sorrow and loss.

Anne Steele was no stranger to this subject matter. Her mother died when Anne was only three years old. When she was 19, she sustained an injury to her hip, which left her permanently disabled. She was engaged to be married when she was 21, and on the day of her wedding, her fiance drowned.

This setting was inspired by the Civil War soldiers who would have known this from the hymnals of the time. The music starts with a quiet statement of fragments of the tune over a drone, like the soldiers in the quiet introspection of a night in the field. We then hear the first verse over a minimal accompaniment. The second verse begins with a driving, marching accompaniment, with the verse now stated in a more bitter, angry way with an overlay reminiscent of the ghosts of their fallen comrades. In the last verse, we hear resignation and acceptance as all the voices come together, before going back to a reflection of the opening.

The tune, DISTRESS, is unattributed in Southern Harmony, and was probably written by William Walker.

SO FADES THE LOVELY, BLOOMING FLOW’R

So fades the lovely, blooming flow’r;
Frail, smiling solace of an hour;
So soon our transient comforts fly,
And pleasure only blooms to die.

Is there no kind, no healing art
To soothe the anguish of the heart?
Spirit of grace, be ever nigh;
Thy comforts are not made to die

Let gentle patience smile on pain,
Till dying hope revives again;
Hope wipes the tear from sorrow’s eye,
And faith points upward to the sky.

—Anne Steele, 1760

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