Morning Has Broken

May 27, 2018

 

Sweet the rain's new fall, sunlit from heaven
Like the first dewfall, on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass

 

            Many would agree that Cat Steven's "Morning Has Broken" is a classic recording, but few could identify the unnamed pianist behind the masterpiece.  

             I thought we'd take a moment to lift the hood of the song and ponder the craftsmanship in the famous piano part.

            Stevens' (now known as Yusaf Islam) "Morning Has Broken" is actually a Christian hymn written by Eleanor Farjeon; her lyrics are set to a traditional Gaelic melody.  The gentle facelift of the piece remains a prototype of how to breathe fresh life into an older spiritual song.  

Cat's emotive vocals and tasteful acoustic guitar treatment is wonderful, but it's the piano part that has consistently captured hearts. Mysteriously, the liner-notes of "Teaser and the Firecat" failed to credit the writer and performer of this arrangement:  Rick Wakeman.  Many know Rick's work with the band Yes and his own legendary solo projects, but Wakeman is also the mind and fingers behind "Morning Has Broken."

            In the years following that recording, Wakeman has emerged as an outspoken Christian.  We can marvel at God's sovereignty when we consider Rick's most enduring musical contribution:  He placed a profound hymn of praise on the hearts of uncounted millions.  The song celebrates God's creation in Eden, and compares it to the spiritual rebirth of a human soul.

            A few years ago, I took an afternoon to "unpack" the arrangement of "Morning Has Broken" and discovered some hidden details in Rick's handiwork.  The arrangement seems to understand and then underscore the theme of the song: God's gift of life, which has descended from heaven to earth.  Musicians will soon realize that the opening piano motif begins a full step higher than the vocals, then descends (modulates) down into the lower key.  From heaven to earth, if you will.  Similarly the song's closing notes effortlessly ascend back into the original higher key; it ends on the chord where it began. Our response to God's gift is praise, which is offered back up to heaven. 

            There are three turnarounds between the four verses, and each is unique. One remains in the key of C, while the other two modulate playfully, like a dance, then return back to the key of C for the vocals.  The centermost turnaround, like an ascent to some glorious summit, requires 11 measures and at least 3 key changes. 

            Other details include the cascading arpeggios that highlight lyrics like "sweet the rain's new fall."  It's fascinating that the opening solo piano signature ends where the guitar and vocals begin, as if it were a work of creation that "birthed" the simple praise.  Soon, the piano joins in, as if illustrating that heaven and earth agree. 

            The arrangement seems to have made an impact on Rick, too; to this day, he performs it in his concerts, and tells – with self-deprecating humor – the tale of how he missed being credited for the famous part. 

            While I admire all great music, few pop hits of the past 50 years really stand the test of time.  Far fewer merit an honorable mention as expressions of praise.  Personally, I find "Morning Has Broken" to be in a category of its own...and we haven't even explored the beautiful text in Farjeon's lyric!  The discussion reminds me of something another musician - Martin Luther - said many years ago: "Music is a fair and glorious gift of God."

"Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning!  

Born of the one Light Eden saw play..."

Blessings, Phil
 

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