Today’s Tune of the Week is my version of the Christian hymn “Brightest and Best”, which I play with an unusual gDGGD tuning. The two middle strings are tuned to the same note, which gives you a grand dulcimer/octave mandolin like sound. The terrific traditional musician Tim Eriksen uses this tuning for a number of his banjo tunes; he adapted it from a similar guitar tuning developed by the British ballad singer Martin Carthy. This tuning is somewhat limiting, and is probably more useful for songs rather than for instrumentals.
Before I get into the hymn itself: Don’t care for the holiday sentiments? Don’t care for religion at all? I’ve got you covered! This is a two for one TOTW: I also use the very same tuning (capo’ed up, of course) for Falls of Richmond:
I’ve always thought of this as an Advent hymn; but it was written for Epiphany, the traditional last day of the 12 days of Christmas and the day in which the visitation of the magi is celebrated. The words of Brightest and Best were written by the Church of England Bishop Reginald Heber in 1811. He ended up as the Bishop of Calcutta and died mysteriously at age 42, supposedly from the shock of going from the intense heat of India into a cold bath, but more likely a heart attack. This is one of the few of his hymns that have survived into the 21st century; one other, “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” was omitted from the Episcopal Church’s 1982 revision; one modern critic felt that in the modern world, the words of this hymn seem patronizing and insensitive to other beliefs, with references to "...every prospect pleases and only man is vile", and to "the heathen in his blindness [bowing] down to wood and stone".
Personally I love the words to Brightest and Best, especially the last verse, which I think sums up the wrongness of the materialism of Christmas:
Vainly we offer each ample oblation,
Vainly with gifts would His favor secure;
Richer by far is the heart’s adoration,
Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.
These words have been put to three separate tunes; this one, which I didn’t try to copy exactly, is the tune “Star in the East” by William Walker. Regarding the melody; I sing the verses with something close to the original modal melody; I sing the chorus with a major scale version of the original modal melody.
Your song is most special for Christmas, Andy, and your powerful version lifted me the whole day. Your tuning was interesting to try and the way the two tunes sound together, you could easily make a medley of Brighter and Best with Falls of Richmond.
I ended up by happily using my Southern Harmony and Musical Companion book -- it hasn't got much opportunity as a reference yet. Just the introduction is a world of information. The video you shared with the singers was helpful. The tuning I used is eDGBD. Hope you enjoy it!
That is a very nice, Janet, a whole different flavor to it, and much closer to the spirit of the original, too. When played in A, that low D would be nice to get without having to cheat like I did. I guess I could try GCGGD capo'ed up...a lot of trouble tuning, though, for a song that is appropriate for 2 weeks of the year!
(If you are inclined to pursue YouTube rabbit holes, the producer of this video has lots of videos combining music of English Pastoral composers (Ralph Vaughan-Williams, George Butterfield, Frederick Delius, etc.) with English art and photography. Not plugging this for commercial purposes, just stuff BHO comrades might enjoy)
(Speaking of rabbit holes, Tim Eriksen has a wide and deep rabbit hole. I am stuck in the office on a Saturday morning and shall do some exploring)