The Story of "As Now We Take the Sacrament" by Daniel Carter
I Was 24 Years Old When I Received the Hymn Text
In summer of 1980, I visited LDS Church Music Chairman, Michael F. Moody, my new friend and mentor, and asked if he might have any hymn texts that he would consider letting me set to music. After a moment’s thought he went and found a text by Lee Tom Perry, who is Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of Twelve Apostle’s son.
“Here is one of the better ones we have seen," he said, "I think that it ought to go in a future hymnbook.”
I was a little apprehensive to take it after hearing what I thought was a heavily laden comment. I wasn't sure I would meet expectations, but Michael seemed intent that I set it to music. Somewhat sheepishly I accepted his assignment.
Several months later, one evening in January, 1981, on a bitter cold night, I sat at the piano, restless trying to discover some combination of sounds that seemed interesting. Looking for any lyrics I might have collected, I came across Lee Perry’s text, As Now We Take the Sacrament.
I tried various combinations of harmonies and melodies until I finally began to settle on something that I liked. About 45 minutes later, the musical setting was complete. I sent the setting to Lee and suggested that we might enter it in the Church Music contest. He agreed, and we sent it off, fingers crossed.
The Hymn Placed Second in the Church Music Contest, 1982
A few months later, Lee and I were very pleased to receive a letter that our hymn placed second in the hymn contest. But even though it placed, there was no plan or apparent opportunity to publish it. From that time until the spring of 1984 I composed many other pieces and entered other contests. Some of the pieces I composed during that period also won awards, but the hymn on which Lee and I collaborated remained nearly forgotten (I thought).
In April of 1984 I was notified by Michael Moody that As Now We Take the Sacrament was being considered for inclusion in a new hymnbook to be published late summer of 1985. However, The General Music Committee of the Church commented that the tune needed to be more singable for congregations. My setting, it seemed, was more suitable for choirs. They asked if I would consider composing another setting and do so quickly since there was some urgency to finalize all the selections for the new publication.
Our First Child Was about to be Born As I Composed
By this time, I was 28 years old. We had just moved a few weeks before our first child was born, and I was only somewhat sure of where my music manuscripts were. My mother-in-law, Sylvia, had also just arrived to help with the arrival of our baby.
Quite happy that I located the box of music sketches and manuscripts, I took a look at the original setting, and then proceeded on to compose something entirely different than the second place winner. In fact, I composed three more completely different settings for the hymn text. I thought at least one of them would be acceptable.
I was notified a short time later that all three of the new settings were rejected. My confidence faded a little, particularly since my score for acceptance was a complete zero. But in a phone call, Michael said to me, "Daniel, you can do this. I gave this text to you because I knew you would create a beautiful hymn tune for it. Oh, and we need it rather soon," he chuckled.
"Well, thanks for that!" I replied, chuckling also. "No pressure, right?"
The overdue arrival of our first born child, a pacing, restless, extremely uncomfortable soon-to-be mom, four rejections, and a calm, wonderful mother-in-law—those were the circumstances. You'd think it all miraculously came together and it was simple and wonderful. It wasn't. There were a few more surprises.
My mother-in-law, Sylvia had it right. "You better get to work," she said smiling, "Your hymn might be interrupted with a birth if you don't hurry up!"
Three More Settings
I went straight to work and managed to hammer out two more settings, but they didn't feel right. It's just one of those nagging little feelings you have as you work, but don't know what else to do musically, but you do the best you can.
I kept trying. And trying. As I bounced from one musical idea to another on the piano, Sylvia would comment occasionally, “Oh, I like that.” I wasn't convinced. I don't think she was either, really. I think she was being encouraging in the face of my feeling frustrated. I played restlessly as if I had lost the tune I was searching for. I didn't know what else to do but keep playing, hoping it might reappear in my mind and fingers. After a little while I realized I wasn’t listening, I was just playing. There wasn't much heart in it. If I was expecting to find this lost music, I needed to spend at least as much time listening before I could actually begin composing. I got up and sat on the couch. I closed my eyes and tried to clear my mind.
Sylvia said, “You must be tired by now.”
“A little," I replied, "but I just need to unthink this for a while.”
About 10 minutes went by and there it was, that melody, the one I knew I needed to write, drifting through my mind. It was as easy and accessible to sing and to write down as if I were picking the most beautiful, delicious fruit from a low hanging branch. Rarely have I had musical experiences like this in my life, but they have happened for no seemingly explainable reason.
At the piano once again, I played the melody, then played it with full harmony and parts. I wrote as quickly as I could as if I was going to miss the opportunity by not responding fast enough. Then it was done. Rechecking the harmonic structure and voice-leading, I was satisfied. From the moment the melody was in my head to finishing the written copy took no more than 15 minutes. I was quietly amazed. No second guesses, no put-it-away-and-think-about-it. It was as it should be.
Sylvia said, “That's the one.” She was calm and serene.
"I think so, too," I replied, relieved.
I sent all three of these settings to Michael Moody.
Not Everything Happens the Way We Think It Should
Elisabeth was born a few days later. Sylvia returned home shortly after her birth. A couple of weeks passed, but I still hadn’t heard whether or not the hymn—that seventh setting—was accepted.
I began to have doubts. Then the news came which realized my worst fear. All three of the new settings were rejected by the Music Committee. To say I was very disappointed was an understatement. What was especially hard to face was that not only did I have a feeling, but so did Sylvia, that the final and last setting would be accepted.
A few weeks later, Michael Moody and I talked. He said he had news about my hymn. With the rejection of my seven attempts at hymn writing, it seemed the matter was closed. However, Michael didn’t feel comfortable with that decision. After some thought and playing the seventh setting for a few other people, he still wasn't sure. He said he knew he had to clear his mind, ponder and pray, and get a good night’s sleep, and then he would know what decision to make. In his next meeting with the Music Committee he told them As Now We Take the Sacrament would be included in the hymnbook.
As the hymnbook neared publication, I was asked to provide a hymn tune name that would be included in one of the indexes. By tradition, the hymn text is titled differently from the hymn tune because hymn texts and hymn tunes are often interchanged. Naming them separately makes them easier to identify. I came to the realization that the hymn tune name for my hymn should be Sylvia’s Hymn. She was there through the entire process of composing it.
My rate of rejections has always run pretty high. I've often quipped that I could probably wallpaper a couple of rooms in a house with all the rejection letters I've accumulated. I think the reason why I've been able to publish over 500 compositions (so far) is because I just didn't know any better than to keep trying. I'm glad I've had people in my life like Sylvia and Michael to encourage me.
Many people assume that I have earned significant royalties on the hymn because it has been in print for over 30 years and has sold perhaps hundreds of millions of copies (and translated into about a half dozen languages). The answer is no, I have not. The hymn was and is a gift to the Church. It was a gift to me—I didn't do anything but notate it. All my other attempts, with all my intent and over thinking only produced six rejections.
Upon receiving my first copy of the hymnbook, I looked to see what hymn number it was, then immediately checked to see if it was listed properly under the Hymn Tune Names index. There it was—Sylvia’s Hymn—a lasting tribute to a woman who gave me so much encouragement as a young composer. I am grateful I named the hymn tune in her honor. On 14 October 1990, she passed away of cancer. I will cherish the memory of writing a hymn in her presence all of my life.
More by this Author
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Music video of beloved Christmas song by Daniel Carter and Sherri Otteson Bird. Story of how the song came to be. Sheet music available. Links included.
Diagrams and easy to follow text that will help musicians learn to read music whether as a singer or instrumentalist.