Tag Archive for hymn writing

Turning Points

Sometimes God’s hand is only visible in the rearview mirror. Life’s major turning points may masquerade as the small and ordinary. They only loom large when seen in retrospect.

I was 22 and in my first and only year of graduate school, pursuing a master’s degree in music composition at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. My life plan was to compose classical music and teach at the university level.

The course was “Introduction to Graduate Studies”, designed to teach us some of the basics of graduate-level study. The instructor had assigned us to prepare an annotated bibliography—a bibliography with brief descriptions for each book entry. Any subject would do.

I was also minister of music and youth director at a small church in Cincinnati. Killing time before an appointment, I was sitting alone in my pastor’s study, idly looking over the books on his shelf. One caught my eye. It was a thin, black, clothbound book with “Wesley Hymnbook” on the spine. I began reading the introductory material, and it caught my interest. Methodist hymnody seemed as good a subject as any for my assignment.

Of course, to prepare the bibliography, I had to find and familiarize myself with other books on Methodist hymnody. Up to this point my interest had been classical music, not church music. But the more I read about Methodist hymns, the more I got hooked. Soon I was haunting local used bookstores, hunting for old hymnals. (Side note: nearly 15 years later, having built up a collection of about 1,000 hymnals, I sold them to friend and composer Tom Fettke and purchased my first computer.) In addition to old hymnals, I bought newer collections of hymns and Christian songs and hungrily perused them. I even went to the rare book room at the University library and photocopied entire old hymnals for study.

When that school year ended, so did my classical music studies. Instead, I accepted a job as college music instructor at God’s Bible School there in Cincinnati. Among the courses I taught were hymnology and the history of church music, with my personal study as my only preparation.

After two years teaching, I decided to apply to Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City. I was driven by a strong interest, not in pastoring, but in biblical languages and theology. Some at the seminary saw my application and connected me with Nazarene Publishing House, which was looking for a music editor at the time. I started work there in June, 1975, and stayed until the end of 2009. I never went to seminary, except to audit a course now and again.

Soon after starting at NPH, I learned that Wesley Hymnbook had been one of their biggest flops ever. My pastor had a copy in his study only because NPH had given them as gifts to graduating seniors at Nazarene Theological Seminary.

But that terrible publishing investment got them a music editor, director, and product developer for 34 years. And it ignited in me a lifelong enthusiasm for hymns.

Our magnificent, incomprehensible God changes and redirects lives every day. Sometimes He reveals Himself through a dramatic divine encounter. We are struck down by a brilliant light like Saul on the road to Damascus, or we suddenly find ourselves on holy ground, standing before a burning bush. But sometimes God’s hand is artfully subtle. He lights a tiny fire deep in the heart of a young person—a fire that in time becomes an all-consuming passion.

Divine Coincidence

Have you discovered that Almighty God wants to take part in your daily work? Here’s one example from my own experience.

Matching a hymn text with the right tune can be tricky, painstaking business. But years ago I began receiving tune ideas from the Lord. Sometimes I would hear an original tune in my head. Other times I would feel prompted toward a folk or classical tune in one of my sources. I would set the tune aside in my “pending” pile, put it out of my mind, and go on with my work.

Then within days the Lord would give me a lyric idea separately, from my Bible study or from an audio book I was listening to. Sometimes it happened the other way around. The text idea would come first, then the tune.

What was amazing was how often I’d find the perfect match for the text or tune there near the top of my “pending” file. I had forgotten about the first one until the second showed up and I went looking for a mate. The two had come to me entirely separately, though in the same time frame.

At first, I considered it mere coincidence. But it began to happen so regularly that I coined a term for it: divine coincidence.

But it wasn’t just texts and tunes that came together so marvelously. Often a thought or scripture would come to me from my daily reading or listening that was exactly what I needed for some current writing endeavor. I hadn’t gone looking for it. It just jumped out at me.

Some would explain such phenomenon as the subconscious working of the mind. And I can’t claim to explain all the workings of this amazing brain the Lord has given us.

But God regularly uses divine coincidence to remind me that He deeply, personally, constantly cares about my daily activities. My work is His work, and He doesn’t abandon me to it. He works beside me all day, every day. The Spirit of the sovereign, almighty, universal God works through me. He will work through you as well. How wonderful is that!

Father, all our work is Your work. Keep us open. Keep us listening. Keep us dependent on You.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21, NASB)

Consider Fresh Sources

What raw materials do you use in your creative work? They may be physical materials, or they might be sources of ideas or inspiration. Have you considered using fresh materials or fresh sources? Let me tell you about my experience.

Though my formal training is as a composer, in my earlier years I primarily wrote lyrics for other composers to set to music. On the rare occasions when I wrote hymns on my own, I primarily wrote them to fit familiar hymn tunes. Of course, I am always careful to only write lyrics to tunes that are already in the public domain. “Public domain” means they are too old to still be under copyright. Thus they are free for anyone to use however they wish.

I still write lots of hymns to familiar hymn tunes. Many congregational song leaders strongly prefer these hymns because they involve no teaching. The congregation already knows the tune, so you just give them the new text, and they’re ready to sing. I try to write a steady supply of such hymns. It’s a way I can serve those congregational song leaders who would gladly use a new hymn if they don’t have to struggle to teach a new tune.

But I enjoy going beyond the finite supply of familiar and well-used hymn tunes. I find it creatively stimulating, and it is an investment in the future. Sometimes I write original hymn tunes myself.

But many years ago I discovered folk tunes. It began with Christmas carols. I realized that many familiar Christmas tunes either lacked Christian texts entirely, or their texts were so archaic that congregations rarely sang them. So I began writing accessible new hymn texts to these tunes. Here are just a few of many: Peace, Peace, Peace; Infinite Lord; Here We Come Rejoicing; Jesus, the Gift of Christmas; and My Soul Exalts You Lord. Our most widely used hymn is one of these: Love Has Come!

Beautiful Christmas tunes in the public domain drew my attention to folk tunes in general. I began buying printed collections of folk tunes and going through them, tune by tune, looking for those that might make interesting and singable hymn tunes. I had had no idea how many multiplied thousands of public domain folk tunes are to be found in various cultures around the world! What an incredible resource! I started a file of tunes that might work as hymn tunes, broken down by tempo (“down”, moderate, and “up”). Most needed arranging. Many needed some degree of revision to work for my purposes, and some needed almost complete rewriting.

But the arranging and rewriting were well worth the effort. This massive body of tunes from various times and cultures provided far greater variety and creative range than a single composer like me could ever hope to match. And because they were written for the common folk to sing, they were often inherently congregational.

In the years since, I’ve written hundreds of hymns based on folk tunes. Here are only a handful of samples: O Living God; All We Need; By Faith; Christ the Lord Is with Us!; and Ephesians 1.

Then I discovered that classical melodies could also be a rich resource for hymn tunes. Unlike folk tunes, they are not inherently congregational. They require more patient searching and more thorough rewriting. But they richly repay the effort. A few of my favorites are: Be Still, My Child; Bless This Seed; Breath of Life; Christ and His Bride; Isaiah 53; Jesus, Full of Truth and Grace; Our Destiny Is Jesus Christ; and The Father’s Face.

But folk and classical melodies have enriched my writing in another way. When I write to familiar hymn tunes, I generally start with a lyric idea, then go searching for a tune to match it. With folk and classical tunes, I’ve grown to enjoy starting with a tune that moves me. Then I write a text that fits it. This change has been creatively stimulating and enriching.

The point is this: whatever your field of creative endeavor, don’t overlook the beautiful, infinitely varied raw materials all around you. You may find them fresh, inspiring, and deeply relevant, no matter what their age. Apply your imagination to transforming what is already available. Give it your own touch. Or let these existing materials inspire fresh directions for your own work.

If the existing material has a copyright notice, or if it was created in the last 90 years, you should probably leave it alone. But don’t be afraid to draw from resources that our Creator has already placed at your fingertips.

The Power of Influence: Timothy Dudley-Smith

As you read each post in this series,
I hope you’ll think with gratitude about those who have influenced you, and
I hope you’ll ponder your investment in the lives of others.

By January, 1983, I was feeling the need for informed and candid reactions to my hymns. I had earlier written to Timothy Dudley-Smith (1926-   ) in my capacity as director of Lillenas Publishing Company. He was already a well-known and widely-respected hymnwriter. So I worked up my courage and wrote him in a personal capacity. I told him about myself and my hymn writing and sent along nine of my hymn texts. I enclosed a check for $5.00 to cover postage for an airmail reply, since he was living in Norwich, England, and I in Kansas City.

In less than two weeks, I received a lengthy reply. He returned my check, explaining that “really I have so little to say that will help you that I should feel a fraud to keep it; and I have had so much help and encouragement from others that it is a privilege to be writing to you now about your own work.” He went on to explain his own unworthiness as a critic, ending with “…and I have many other lacks which make me hesitate to write. But since you ask me…”. My first lesson from Timothy Dudley-Smith was a lesson in deep humility.

He went on to give detailed responses to my specific hymns and as well as comments about hymn writing in general. He talked about the importance of opening lines. He candidly asked me, “Do you revise enough?”, then gave a number of examples of my typing errors, clumsy expressions, colloquialisms (he disliked contractions in hymns), loose expressions, scansion, and the lack of adequate punctuation. He gave his own take on “false rhyme”. The final third of the letter was entirely a lesson in revision.

I responded, sending him revisions of the same hymns plus one additional one. Again, he answered within days. He included an entire page of detailed responses to the additional hymn, Raised from Death to Love and Living. His praises and criticisms helped me polish the hymn, and it is still in hymnal use.

Our correspondence continued similarly through several more letters that year, and we occasionally touched base in the coming years.

My revision process is still not as painstaking as his, but I consistently employ one technique I learned from him. After arriving at the best finished draft I can produce, I let the hymn sit for several days, then come back to it again. Getting the hymn out of my mind for a few days, I can then see it with fresh eyes, and revisions and needed improvements are apparent that I would otherwise have missed.

Whatever my hymn writing is today, in 1983 it was primitive by any measure. I marvel that such a capable writer took my scratchings so seriously; that such a busy man, with so many demands on his time, took so much time with me. I still aspire to the balance of kindness and candor that he showed throughout his critiques.

Timothy Dudley-Smith was a vital part of my development as a hymn writer. He gave me one of the greatest gifts one can give a writer: a truer perspective. He helped me see my work more critically and showed me a practical road toward improvement.

The Power of Influence: Charles Wesley

As you read each post in this series,
I hope you’ll think with gratitude about those who have influenced you, and
I hope you’ll ponder your investment in the lives of others.

As a music composition major at the College-Conservatory of Music, the University of Cincinnati, I trained to be a composer of classical music. To learn our craft, we intensely studied the works of classical masters. In the years before sound recordings, composers used to learn the techniques of classical masters by hand-copying their scores.

One of the best ways to learn hymn writing is to employ the same strategy: study the hymns of the best hymnwriters. Immerse yourself in their work.

Before I had any personal designs on being a hymnwriter, the Lord exposed me to the hymns of many, many hymnists. Since I grew up in a hymn-singing church, hundreds of hymns were already engrained in my emotional memory. Then in my 20’s and early 30’s, I collected old hymnals and read many of them. While at the University of Cincinnati, I used to take old hymnals out of their rare books collection and photocopy entire hymnals on the spot so that I could read through them on my own.

In my early 20’s, before coming to Lillenas and before having any designs on music publishing or hymn writing, I bought numerous newly-published collections of songs and hymns. Some were contemporary collections from the “Jesus music” movement here in the U.S., while others were the hymns of British hymnwriters from the “Hymn Explosion” of the time—Fred Kaan, followed by Brian Wren, Fred Pratt Green, and Timothy Dudley-Smith. I read through each and every song and hymn. Often I would make notes on what I liked and didn’t like about each selection. What great training the Lord gave me! I had no ambitions. I was just following my interests.

During my first 12 years at Lillenas, I consciously prepared for the next denominational hymnal by reading through uncounted complete hymn collections looking for potential hymns. Some of the best of these found their way into Sing to the Lord (1993), which I had the privilege of editing.

I say all the above to make this point: in my formative years, I read many thousands of hymns from a wide variety of traditions. But I particularly studied the hymns of one particular writer: Charles Wesley. In addition to encountering his work in older hymnals, two projects intensified my exposure to his hymns:

1.  Around the late ‘70’s, scholar Carl Bangs went to Bud Lunn, then head of Nazarene Publishing House, and suggested that the company release a new collection of Wesley hymns. I was given the joyful task of compiling such a book, which meant combing through many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Wesley hymn texts. Wesley Hymns was released in 1982.

2.  During that same time frame, Wesleyan theologians were debating whether John Wesley associated entire sanctification with Pentecost. I contributed to the debate by doing a comparative study of the two topics as treated in the Wesleys’ hymn publications. The fall, 1982, issue of the Wesleyan Theological Journal published my study, “The Wesleys’ Hymns on Full Redemption and Pentecost: A Brief Comparison”.

As I immersed myself in Charles Wesley’s hymns, they became part of me. He wrote hymns for public worship, as well as more devotional hymns, and both were infused with his deep desire for the fullness of God.

He so beautifully and naturally balances the objective and the subjective. His fervent passion was fueled by both reason and emotion, by scripture as well as personal experience. As a result, notice the wide variety of protestant traditions that still consider his hymns a high water mark. The sheer quality of his work has taken his hymns far beyond their theological home turf.

I’ve long wanted to infuse my own hymns with his balance. And how the evangelical church still struggles to find that balance! The Apostle Paul could have been talking about Wesley hymns when he wrote:

I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. (1 Corinthians 14:15, NASB)

Father, thank you for providing the example and influence of Charles Wesley. Continue to keep our minds and hearts open to his lessons.

The Power of Influence: C. S. Lewis

As you read each post in this series,
I hope you’ll think with gratitude about those who have influenced you, and
I hope you’ll ponder your investment in the lives of others.

I am a huge fan of audio books and have been for many years. That’s how I first came to know the writing of C. S. Lewis (1898-1963). At present I own recordings of 25 books by him and another five books about him.  I’ve listened to most of them multiple times. He is easily my favorite extra-biblical author.

I’m including him among my major influencers, even though I never met him. I’ve written elsewhere about how his ideas on reason and imagination have enlightened me (see Reason and Imagination). But that’s only one of the ways his writing has enriched my thought and my life.

When I began reading and listening to his books, the first thing that struck me was how clearly he thought and wrote. He dealt with complex ideas and chains of reasoning with amazing clarity and simplicity. That’s what I need to do as a hymn writer. Hymns must express complex and lofty ideas in a way that is understandable and natural for the average lay person. C. S. Lewis shows that it can be done and points the way. For me, his apologetic works do this best, especially Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, and Miracles.

I rarely read or listen to fiction, but Lewis is a shining exception. His fiction inspires me to see the world from a broader, loftier perspective. His stories give me hope. He unselfconsciously shows Almighty God working His loving will in the real, physical world in which we live. Again, this points the way for my hymns. His Chronicles of Narnia are justly famous along this line, but I love The Great Divorce for the same reason. And don’t miss his space trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. For years I avoided them, thinking that science fiction written before 1960 would seem primitive. How very wrong I was!

The Screwtape Letters is still unique after all these years. How could a book on so dark a subject as temptation be so whimsical and even funny? Writing can be both entertaining and profoundly meaningful!

But the main reason I find C. S. Lewis so enriching is his insightfulness. With most books, even excellent ones, you are likely to get fresh, provocative insights only every once in a while. With Lewis, the insights are an almost continuous stream. My impression is that this comes not just from his great mind and great heart, but from the fact that he read deeply and widely. He seemed to synthesize insights gleaned from the entire body of Christian literature.

It’s not surprising that Lewis has inspired a number of my hymns. To give them a look and listen, just click on the links below. Both the printed copies and the downloadable recordings are free (see the upper right-hand quadrant for the “Listen” link).

Christ Is Come
Ever Full and Overflowing
God My Father
Longing for Jesus
Our Lord I AM
See the Father Walk Among Us
The Heart of Christ
We Choose Joy
What Will You Do with Jesus?
You Came to Us

The Power of Influence: Tom Fettke

As you read each post in this series,
I hope you’ll think with gratitude about those who have influenced you, and
I hope you’ll ponder your investment in the lives of others.

Previously, he had taught high school choral music in Oakland, California. But when we started working together, Tom Fettke was selling pianos and organs out of a store showroom. When we needed to talk business, I had to call him there.

During the early years when he worked such full-time jobs outside music publishing, he sometimes wrote third shift, between late night and early morning hours. That’s how dedicated he was to his writing. When I met him in the summer of 1975, soon after I became music editor at Lillenas Publishing Company, he had already had a Christmas musical published by Lillenas, Love, Joy, Peace, as well as several anthems.

We hit it off from the beginning. Our ideas and personalities were radically different in many ways, but we were both secure enough to be completely honest with each other. That candid communication has taken us through all the years and all the situations since.

At that point, Lillenas was going through a changing of the guard, and by the late ‘70’s, I was not only director but also in charge of product development. Whenever I had an idea or needed a sounding board, Tom was my first stop.

He and I grew up together in the church music publishing business. Tom has always been a superb composer, arranger, and producer. But what made him unique was his avid interest in the behind-the-scenes aspects of publishing. Most writers only wanted to write—forget the business end. Tom was the opposite. He was insatiably curious about the rest of publishing—product development, marketing, song selection, copyright, and more. Thus he was absolutely invaluable to this young publisher who by now had more than he could possibly handle.

Basically, my 38 years in church music publishing have been more interesting, fun, and fruitful because of my close personal and professional friendship with Tom Fettke.

But he has also had a profound influence on my writing. Coming to Lillenas out of the Conservatory, I brought with me a handful of Christian songs, with original words and music. Tom quickly praised the lyrics but asked to be allowed to do his own musical settings. Thus our relationship as composer and lyricist began early and continued through perhaps 100 songs, give or take. A number of my earlier hymns, still in print, were written at his request.

Tom was and is a perfectionist. He would ask for a lyric to fit certain criteria, or I would offer one I had written, and I could count on the fact that he would call me and name multiple spots he wanted “re-examined”—which meant redone. He forced me to be much tougher on myself in every area of lyric writing, but especially when it came to the singability of my words. I learned that I had to be unflinchingly aware of the flow of the sounds of the words, how easy and natural it was to sing those consonants and vowels to those notes, in that context. If I didn’t iron out those problems before I sent him the lyric, he would force me to address them. Over the years, I came to examine the exact motion of the mouth required to say or sing each sound and each syllable. Could that sound be easily and naturally sung to that pitch, at that tempo, in that context? If not, it had to be replaced, no matter what the sense demanded.

That training in Tom’s school of lyric-writing has proven invaluable in my later years as I’ve focused on hymn writing. Hymn writing is like building a ship in a bottle, with every word having to be exactly right in relation to a long list of criteria—denotation, connotation, singability, meter, rhyme, etc. Anything I know about writing singable lyrics was learned under the tutelage of this dear and very exacting friend.

Thank You, good Lord, for Tom Fettke!