Spanish Hymns and the Future Hymnbook

Recently, Walter van Beek wrote an interesting post on this blog about Global Mormonism. Globalization and decentralization are important topics in the Church right now. Even within the past few weeks, the gathering of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve in Rome has been portrayed as a hugely symbolic moment for the Church’s broadening its focus beyond Utah and the USA. When the new hymnbook was announced last year, Elder Erich W. Kopischke stated that one goal of the new edition was to “include some of the best hymns and songs originating in other languages that will then be translated into English and the other languages around the world.”[1] So far, the only hymn in the English hymnal to be written by a Latter-day Saint that had translated from another language is the stirring Restoration hymn “Sehet ihr Völker, Licht bricht heran!”, written in German but known in English as “Hark All Ye Nations!” The hymn was included in the English hymnal for the first time in 1985.[2] From there, it has spread around the world. As far as I can tell, the non-English hymn that stands the best chance of making its way into the new hymnal is the Spanish missionary hymn, “Placentero nos es trabajar.”

One thing that must be faced to achieve the goal described by Elder Kopischke is that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has historically prioritized the hymns of English-speaking North American and Great Britain. The hymnody of Latter-day Saints was first established in English and has been expected to be the standard by most high-ranking Church officials. When missionaries have worked in places that had a strong tradition of hymns to begin with, the early hymnbooks in other languages were often more diverse than later ones, incorporating popular hymns from the area that weren’t included in the English hymnal as well as new hymns by Latter-day Saints. The general trend in the 20th century, however, has been to make all hymnbooks to conform more closely to the English hymnbook, resulting in a decline in visibility for hymns and songs written by Latter-day Saints in other languages.

This diversity followed by conformity is demonstrated by the Spanish language hymnbooks. Except for one privately published hymnal, the earliest Spanish hymnals were all produced by the Mexico Mission. The three major editions published between 1907 and 1927 were collections of texts, primarily translations from the English hymnals or Protestant hymnbooks. There were several texts unique to these hymnals, however, that were written in Spanish by missionaries, Anglo-American colonists in Mexico, and native Mexican saints. The hymnbook with the highest percentage of original Spanish texts was the 1912 edition, which included 23 hymns written in Spanish by Latter-day Saints.[3] The 1942 Himnos de Sion was the first Spanish Latter-day Saint hymnal to be produced from Church headquarters in Salt Lake City and the first to include music. This burgundy-colored hymnbook was a compilation of all the various songbooks used in Utah at the time. The result was an extremely eclectic songbook, ranging from songs about brushing your teeth to full-blown choral anthems. Less than ten of the Latter-day Saints hymns that were written in Spanish were included, and all but two borrowed their tunes from hymns in the English hymnbook.

BX 8685.2 .Sp24h 1912 no. 2 front-cover

The 1912 Himnos de Sion, published by the Mexican mission

The 1992 Spanish translation of the current English hymnbook had even fewer hymns that were originally written in Spanish. Only three out of the twenty-three original Spanish texts published in the 1912 Spanish hymnal were included: “¿Por qué somos?” by Edmund W. Richardson, “Despedida” or “Placentero nos es trabajar” by Andres C. Gonzalez, and “La voz, ya, del eterno” or “¡La Proclamación!” by José V. Estrada G. As a side note, there are also a few hymns included in the 1992 Himnos that carried over from previous English hymnals, but those hymns were all originally written in English (and so are beyond the scope of this post). The number of hymns written in Spanish by Latter-day Saints in official hymnbooks has dramatically decreased from the climax in 1912.

Given that Spanish-speaking Latter-day Saints represent a huge portion of the Church and Elder Kopishke’s statement that I cited at the outset, it seems likely that these Spanish hymns will be given priority for the core hymnbook. The hymn known as “Despedida” or “Placentero nos es trabajar” (“How Pleasing It Is to Work”) is the most prominent among them. When I have asked missionaries that served in Spanish-speaking regions if there were any hymns they thought would be included in the new hymnbook, the most common response was something along the lines of: “there was this really neat hymn known as ‘Placentero nos es trabajar.’ I bet they include that one.” The results of an extensive survey performed by Samuel Bradshaw and the folks over at SingPraises.net indicated that “How Pleasing It Is to Work” was the hymn to be sung most often in sacrament meetings that was written by a Latter-day Saint in a language other than English and not included in the English hymnal.[4] The hymn has also been included in other Latter-day Saint hymnbooks, such as the 2012 Q’eqchi’ (Mayan) hymnal. These things, to me, indicate that it is the best-known Spanish hymn of the Restoration.

andres-c-gonzalez-fs

Andrés C. González. Image courtesy history.lds.org

The hymn was written by Andrés C. González during a mission to Mexico City at the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution. According to one account, he and his companion thought they would be able to attract more attention by singing a popular Protestant hymn known as “In the Sweet By and By,” but were quickly arrested for “stealing” the Protestants’ song. While in jail, González wrote different lyrics to the tune. When the missionaries were released from prison the next day, they went out and sang “Placentero nos es trabajar” on the street corner. As the police came to arrest them for singing “In the Sweet By and By” again, Elder González exclaimed that: “You can’t take us to jail. It’s not the same song.”[5] The lyrics he wrote that night have been included in every Spanish hymnbooks for Latter-day Saints since 1912 and are still sung to the tune for which he wrote them. Perhaps they will soon be included in the core hymnbook published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in many other languages as well.[6]

Placentero nos es trabajar

[1] “Latter-day Saint hymnbook and children’s songbook revised,” Mormon Newsroom, 18 June 2018, https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/latter-day-saint-hymnbook-and-childrens-songbook-revised

[2] Even in this case, the text is only loosely based on the original, 4-verse hymn in German.

[3] See John-Charles Duffy and Hugo Olaiz, “Correlated Praise: The Development of the Spanish Hymnal,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 35, 2:89-113.

[4] https://singpraises.net/statistics/sacrament-meeting, accessed 25 March 2019.

[5] Story recorded at Kiersten, “Placentero Nos es Trabajar,” All the Kings men, 19 July 2011, accessed 18 July 2018, http://kierstensdragon.blogspot.com/2011/07/placentero-nos-es-trabajar.html.

[6] See the following sites for English translations of the hymn: https://singpraises.net/text/1009/how-pleasing-it-is-to-work, https://mormonguitartabs.blogspot.com/2009/09/placentero-nos-es-trabajar.html, and http://tomobag.blogspot.com/2014/06/english-translation-for-placentero-nos.html

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