My Sister’s Hands, reaching

Katrina DowlingMusicLeave a Comment

Gainsborough The Painter's Daughters chasing a Butterfly 1756 - detail

During our lectionary series on the book of Ruth, we’re enjoying Sally DeFord’s “My Sister’s Hands.” This song gets a lot of its emotional traction from the leaning notes (appoggiaturas) and the wide melodic intervals that are part of DeFord’s style. Both these features give you a sense of reaching. And this musical effect is powerfully present in many songs from the present day right back to the time of Bach. I’ll show you some examples, and you’ll be able to think of plenty more!

First, here are the musical features we’re looking at in “My Sister’s Hands.” In the case of leaning notes, the singer hits an accented note that clashes with the harmony and then it resolves by moving to a neighbouring note. You hear this movement as something like tension-release, or surprise-resolution. That’s an internal physical sensation that parallels the external sensation of reaching and then arriving, and it evokes an emotional parallel such as yearning.

My Sister's Hands appoggiatura

It’s no accident that these are upwardly-moving leaning notes. When a melody reaches upwards, it reinforces the sense of questing, yearning, hope, need, and similar moods. The wider the upward reach, the more pointed the composer makes this effect. In the next example, there’s a wide upward leap at the start of the phrase, and the upward movement continues over more than an octave.

My Sister's Hands 6th

The same interval features in BELMONT (William Gardiner, 1812):


In Together in Song, BELMONT is set with the hymn “Be known to us in breaking bread,” but it has been paired with many hymns. It’s notable how many speak of yearning! Here’s a small sample of their first lines:

  • O for a closer walk with God
  • Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire
  • O for a heart to praise my God
  • My God, accept my heart this day
  • O God, unseen yet ever near
  • O Lord, I would delight in thee
  • As longs the deer for cooling streams
  • My soul for Thy salvation faints
  • The Lord be with us as we walk

Then there’s “God be in my head” (a prayer first published in 1514, set by Walfird Davies, 1869-1941):

God be in my head

And the upward reaching in MT. HOLYOKE (Maurice Wostenholm, 1887-1959) supports the hopeful mood of “There’s a light upon the mountains”:

There's a light upon the mountains

None of these hymns have the leaning notes we hear in “My Sister’s Hands,” but for perhaps the greatest ever use of ascending leaning notes to heighten the emotion of a text, listen to the aria “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” from Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

Mache dich, mein Herze, rein

We’re excited to extend the ‘reaching’ theme into the visual realm with our photo-sharing project inspired by “My Sister’s Hands,” which will see us sharing photos of hands online throughout August and will culminate in an exhibition of photographic prints at St Luke’s from 19th September to 2nd October 2016. An invitation to participate will be online soon!

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