To appreciate the timelessness of the hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” don’t forget it was penned by the British actress Sarah Flower Adams almost two centuries ago and harkened way back to Jacob’s dream as recorded in Genesis — the Bible’s oldest book.
Beloved by Latter-day Saint choirs and congregations as hymn No. 100 in the Church’s current hymnbook, the song is perhaps most widely known for allegedly being the final number performed by the band on the Titanic before the ship sank.
And “Nearer, My God, to Thee”’s comforting lyrics — “Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to thee” — can seem aptly written for anyone at this moment weathering 2020’s unsettling events.
A new video released a few days ago by the Brigham Young University male a cappella group Vocal Point delivers the ageless hymn in contemporary and inclusive fashion. Vocal Point members are joined in virtual fashion by approximately 800 performers from 55 countries.
“Something this uplifting is exactly what we need right now,” said Weneta Kosmala, a professional violinist from California who is counted among the rows of musicians performing in the video.
A loyal Vocal Point fan, Kosmala is not a Latter-day Saint. But she quickly accepted an invitation to participate in the video. Watching herself perform virtually with hundreds of fellow musicians from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities “was amazing — it was thrilling to be a part of this experience.”
Kosmala’s friend and fellow musician, Barbara Bell, won’t soon forget the opportunity to blend her talent with hundreds of others for a project that is uplifting thousands more.
“I loved seeing and hearing the final product; so beautiful and the lyrics are even more meaningful while being apart from everyone, and feeling nearer to God through this wonderful arrangement,” she wrote.
Posted just days ago, the Vocal Point video already has over 100,000 YouTube views.
Vocal Point enjoys a well-established connection with “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” The group’s artistic director, McKay Crockett, had long been a fan of his predecessor James Steven’s “inspired arrangement” of the beloved hymn.
The arrangement “hit me in a way that few musical pieces ever have,” he told the Church News.
Vocal Point collaborated with the BYU Men’s Chorus six years ago to create a video of the hymn as arranged by Stevens. Since then, the video has been viewed over 27 million times, gleaning countless fans who requested sheet music of the Stevens arrangement.
A few months ago, as the pandemic traversed the globe, Stevens and Crockett bounced about the idea of presenting the song in a virtual choir style and including “guest performers” from around the world..
“From that moment on, the stars have aligned — and through the hard work of so many, the piece came to life in an extraordinary way,” said Crockett.
In early April, Stevens and the other organizers reached out to people who belonged to Vocal Point’s email lists, along with any who had requested Vocal Point’s sheet music in the past.
“We sent an open invitation to anyone who wanted to participate,” he said. “We got a great response.”
Would-be video participants were sent user-friendly instructions on how to access a designated website and record and upload either instrumental or vocal tracks. Soon hundreds of recordings were arriving. A team of video and audio editors began pulling it all together. Rows of virtual musicians were soon being captured performing the hymn alongside Vocal Point members in a 3-dimensional cathedral.
Stevens said it was thrilling seeing the wide range of people lending their talents to the virtual performance of “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”
“It was amazing to see the response,” he said. “There were older people and young kids. It was so much fun to see each video and see the variety.”
By July, the video was ready for final edits. By early August, it was ready to post.
Ben Fales, who helped produce the project, was inspired by the participation of Kosmala, Bell and hundreds of others who were anxious to join the virtual choir and orchestra.
“Over 40% of the 800 video submissions came from people outside the United States, and it was so inspiring to know that these performers — sons and daughters of God — wanted to unite with us from places as far away as Croatia, Sri Lanka, Argentina and many other parts of the world.
“The power of music is amazing, and when it is coupled with our testimonies about God, it is exponentially amazing. What a blessing technology is as it allows us to connect with our brothers and sisters around the world in such an intimate way.”
Crockett believes Christ’s gospel — and the unifying music it inspires such as “Nearer, My God, to Thee” — has lasting power.
“They turn our hearts to the Savior and allow us to remember what is most important,” he said. “So while this project was indeed beautiful and musically impactful, I’m even more grateful for the way that it has allowed people to come together — both those who helped create it, and those who are now watching and sharing.”
Stevens added the feedback he’s received largely focuses on the video’s inclusive, gospel-anchored message.
“It’s so nice to come together with people from all over the world and celebrate something we can all agree on, which is peace. For those who are believers, it brings us together in unity.”