Several times during the Covid lockdown I précised some parts of my unpublished book “Melody and Musical Texture,” seizing on some elementary aspects of harmony and small form and assembling short explanations with examples drawn from well-known hymns. If you want to review some of these, they go back to HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE. After further thought, I lately decided to pile on some more, starting with the “familiar style” of 19th-century New England Congregationalists, before retrospectively examining the contrapuntal style of the 17th-century Lutheran chorale.
Olivet, composed by Boston’s own Lowell Mason, has been a popular hymn for nearly two centuries. The plain but well-shaped tune enjoys a harmonization that is likewise simple but perfectly suited to the text — easy to sing and to play. The melody, organized within the span of an octave, includes a recurrent rhythm (in the even more popular “Nearer, my God, to thee,” also by Mason, you will recognize some of the same rhythm). The first two phrases are roughly symmetrical: I-V-I is answered by V-I-V, following the text. (“Roughly” because there is more V in the first phrase than there is I in the second, but that doesn’t upset the harmony. It’s not the same as question-and-answer, either, nor call-and-response, but more like After-you-Sir, Yes-Sir.) The third phrase says: something-different after what’s-next.
The melodic curve begins and ends on the tonic D, settling on A to hover there, then reaching up once to a single peak in order to descend stepwise to its point of origin. The harmony supporting this is mostly tonic or dominant, the two-bar phrases emphasizing the one or the other, and approaching the midpoint with a cadence (“divine”) that can be considered either a half cadence in D major, or an authentic cadence in A major — an ambiguity that enhances the tonal strength of the whole. Subdominant harmony (IV) begins to appear in the second half, and the climactic D (m. 11) is colored by a submediant harmony (vi), not heard before. Note the progress of the bass line from beginning to end, including the climactic scalewise descent from m. 11. In the final cadence (“–ly thine”) octaves are formed by contrary motion of soprano and bass — a contrapuntal relationship that is normally avoided but sometimes found in cadences when a particular melodic stress is wanted, as here. What about the antepenultimate chord (“whol-”)? Is it a G major triad with one added slightly-dissonant note (E), or a minor triad (ii) in first inversion, into which the D has been tied over from the chord before it? This is a quibble that harmony teachers prefer not to take a stand on — hence the weird-looking roman-numeral analysis: IV(ii)65.
What other questions might you ask here? There’s not a lot of counterpoint in this hymn, other than that the bass line carefully supports the soprano line; as any choral singer will tell you, the altos and tenors don’t have as much to do, but they are still necessary. And the melody is a good tune that everyone will remember.