If you missed yesterday’s post on the back story of “It Is Well,” you can find it here: Part 1–Though Trials Should Come.
With such a tragic history behind the words of this famous hymn, it is only fitting that the music should do it justice and carry its message with strength. Thanks to the composer Philip Bliss, I believe this was achieved. Not only has it remained one of the most recognizable hymn melodies, both within and without Christian circles, but it fits the text perfectly. The music accentuates the highs and lows; it effectively paints a picture of the author’s rolling emotions; and it draws the singer at the end into a hushed, reverent statement of trust in God.
Particularly in “It Is Well,” the melody and its harmonies need to be strong enough to support the weight of the words without drawing attention away from them, thus allowing the text to shine in the forefront of the singer’s mind. But the music is not merely a background player here; it also has a leading role: to “guide” the singer along the arc of the text and to highlight the important moments.
With all this in mind, then, let’s take a look at the first line of the hymn:
To begin with, it is necessary to review a little bit of music theory that we’ve covered before: Remember that the tonic–that is, the first note of the scale (or group of notes) that’s used for the song–is important. It is the foundation on which the rest of the music is built, it is what creates the sense of “coming home” to rest. Without a clear tonic, the music may lack resolution and can become rather ambiguous.
“It Is Well” needs a clear foundation at the beginning, free of ambiguity, if it is to support the drifting nature that marks its latter half. Thus it starts as we would expect, on the tonic chord. But the melody (or the top note, which is what most people sing) is not the tonic note. It is one of the other notes of the chord.
A chord is a group of at least three notes that are played together at the same time. The first and lowest note is called the root, and it lays the foundation. The other chord notes are higher than the root and serve the purpose of “filling in” and adding more color to the palate. Without the root, a chord’s function would be unclear, but without the “filler” notes, music would be rather bland. One might almost say it would be…one-note?
OK, lame music joke. I couldn’t resist though…
Back to the point: the first chord of “It Is Well” is the tonic chord. That means the root of the chord is–you guessed it–the tonic note. So we start at rest, with a solid foundation. Yet the melody does not begin on the tonic note, but rather on one of the other, higher notes of the chord. The effect this choice of starting note has is that, while you are comfortable at home (because you are still inside the tonic chord), you start out right away feeling sort of “up in the air,” in a manner of speaking.
I would also point out that the soprano and alto (or the two notes on the top line) move almost exclusively in thirds. That means the notes stay fairly close together. The distance (a.k.a. interval) of a third is one of the most pleasing sounds to the ear. In that sense, the harmony serves to sort of counter the up-in-the-air feeling of the melody by creating an underlying peace to the first line.
One final thing to consider is the movement of the notes: The melody stays relatively low, and moves mostly by steps so its motion is small and gradual. The rolling motion is also established right away, as the melody goes up and down in waves. And if you look closely at both lines, you’ll see that they move opposite each other–either going away from each other or coming towards each other. This creates an expanding/contracting feeling to the beginning, or a pushing/pulling, to give just a little bit more tension.
Overall, this line is calm and peaceful, but with a hint of foreshadowing of the struggle to come…
Now let’s see where the second line takes us:
Whereas the first line is comfortable and pleasant, and somewhat predictable, this second line takes a sharp and unexpected turn. It’s like getting a sudden, icy cold spray of water in the face.
The most important thing to notice right away is that when you sing the word “sorrows” here, the music takes you immediately to a minor chord, instead of the major tonic, which is what we might expect. Here we have our first deviation, taking us away from the pleasant, “happy” sound of major to the melancholy of minor. Fitting for the word “sorrows,” no? This change in mood is made all the more stark in contrast by the fact that it is the first minor chord of the song. Everything leading up to this moment–the entire first line–is all major chords.
Add to that the sudden soaring of the melody up to a high D-flat, and the sharp bitterness of sorrow is aptly captured, all within one single chord.
Then the line does something interesting: tonicization.
Simply put, tonicization is when a song “borrows” notes that don’t belong in its key, or the group of notes that make up the song. In the above example, you’ll see a note in the bottom line, and another later on in the top line, with a funny symbol just to the left of it, like an “L” and a “7” put together. That symbol is called a natural, and it cancels the current form of the note, essentially turning it into a different note. The new form of the note, however, doesn’t “belong” to the key.
Borrowed notes, precisely because they don’t belong, tend to stick out like a sore thumb. This quality makes them perfect candidates for accentuating or drawing the listener’s attention to certain moments. In this example, the music borrows a specific note in order to make it feel like the song has suddenly shifted into a minor key, even though it’s only an illusion, so to speak.
Tonicization is always a temporary state, however, usually lasting for no more than two chords, then everything goes back to normal. So no sooner has it caught your attention than it’s gone.
Interestingly in this hymn, tonicization actually occurs twice in the same line. The first time, it’s to prolong the feeling of minor that was established at the word “sorrow.” The second time it borrows a note, it’s to return it to a major feeling again, thus coming full circle.
To sum up, this line spends much of its time drifting around from one key to the next, lending an air of uncertainty to the mood–much like the drifting thoughts and uncertainty we are prone to feel in times of suffering.
After all the drifting around of the previous line, this last line starts right away with the tonic on the first downbeat, thus returning us to certainty and resolution. With this certainty, in addition to the ascending melody line and the return of the major sound, a sense of glorious triumph takes over–but it is not the triumph of the writer (or the singer) it refers to. Rather, if one carefully studies the text, one will see that it is God who is triumphant. And that is what makes the message so powerful. It is what gave Spafford, and what gives those who sing his words today, the confidence to say “it is well with my soul,” despite all appearances.
There are two more examples of tonicization here. The purpose this time serves mostly to highlight the change in mood–or, rather, the return of confidence and trust in God, regardless of what twists and turns this life takes us through. The borrowed notes help the music build up into a grand crescendo. At the end of the line, the triumphant mood holds on with a long, high note, like a shout of praise.
Finally, we have the refrain:
This refrain is beautifully and refreshingly simple after the intricacies of the verse. Immediately after the loud note of triumph where the previous line ended, the music drops back down. The melody just holds a single note, right in the middle of the range of the song. In fact, it’s the same note that is sung at the very beginning of the song. And it serves a similar purpose: Once again, the music uses the tonic chord for that sense of comfort, but leaves the melody hanging up in the air.
While those singing the melody line simply hold one note as a constant presence–perhaps the sustaining of the note is a reminder of God’s promise to sustain us?–the other singers echo the words on different pitches. The neat part about this “echo” in the harmony is its symmetry. You have the first half: “It is well (it is well)” and then the second half: “with my soul (with my soul),” which are mirror images of each other in terms of harmonic structure. In the first half, the harmony voices go from a D-flat chord (tonic) to an A-flat chord (dominant). In the second half, the harmony voices begin instead on the A-flat chord and end on the tonic, D-flat. Thus it begins and ends at rest.
To finish the song, all voices return together, united in praise to proclaim: “It is well, it is well with my soul.”
This hymn serves as a beautiful reminder of God’s promise to sustain our souls until the end, no matter the trials we face in this life. And the fact that Horatio Spafford–a man who suffered the devastation of his home town, financial ruin and the deaths of five children–could pen such words of confidence and faith is both a convicting and encouraging example. If he was able to say these words, how much more so should I, a person who has not even come close to his amount of suffering? Thankfully, it is not up to my own abilities, but instead based upon God’s marvelous grace.
He has promised to sustain my soul through any trial in this life, so I will rest in His faithfulness and sing, “It is well, it is well with my soul.”
Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” (Job 1: 20-21)
“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and with my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!” (Job 19: 25-27)