Making a hymn – how to go about it

What do we need to think about when writing a hymn? Are there rules? And if so, what are they?

The Revd Anne Sardeson is a Training Officer for the United Reformed Church Thames North Synod. She is also a musician and hymn writer. She has kindly offered to StF+ a written version of a talk she gave at the URC Music Network’s Celebration Day in October 2018. In it she outlines one process – her process – for writing a hymn designed for use on Palm Sunday.

Complete words and music are available here.

I write words with music as well as words without music and music without words. Usually, though, it’s words and music, and I struggle to write words without a tune growing in my head alongside them! Usually, but not always, the words come first, just before the music starts to form, but if I’m on my guitar or at the piano the tune usually starts to emerge first just before the words start to emerge. Then it takes time. Usually some words come easily: an ongoing first line or refrain, even a whole verse, but the rest of the words take time and once the tune is complete I can spend days drawing out the rest of the words (sometimes weeks!).

Once the words start to emerge, I have two “rules”:

    1. Don’t be lazy with the words
    2. Don’t be lazy with the theology

Once the music has emerged, I have another one:

    3. Don’t mess with the tune

Being lazy with words is about not repeating words in a verse (though it may be OK to repeat a phrase, but not too much). This pushes me to be creative with rhymes and rhythms and reminds how passionately I care about God language and human language.

Being lazy with theology is when we use a phrase or a word because it’s easy or it fits, rather than asking if that is what we really believe or want to say about God or ourselves.

Not messing with the tune means not adding extra notes or stretching words to fit too many notes. As I write I sing things through again and again to hear them and see how they feel in my mouth. My “rules” remind me that writing is a discipline, even if it is one that sometimes comes quite easily. In the end, though, the ultimate discipline is not holding onto something just because I wrote it, but instead working hard to hone it and even discard whole phrases and verses because, if I’m honest, they just don’t do what they need to do.

My writing process grows out of my passion for congregational hymn singing. The composer John Taverner said that the purpose of sacred music is “to lead us to the threshold of prayer or to a true encounter with the living God”; and the theologian Augustine of Hippo reputedly said that whoever sings “prays twice”.

So our singing together is a high calling. And, according to Karl Barth, it is essential: “The Christian Church sings. It is not a choral society. Its singing is not a concert. But from inner, material necessity, it sings.” But at least it need not be perfect! God, I believe, is at work in our mistakes, but the rules I put on my writing remind me that it needs integrity.

Palm Sunday, Brazil © 2019 Getty Images

When I wrote my Palm Sunday hymn the first verse came relatively quickly, and the tune started to emerge soon afterwards:

This week the cry goes “Hosanna” then “die”;
followers run, and one will just lie;
voices are silenced and some whisper “why?”;
but most of Jerusalem shout “crucify!”

I knew the words needed to be unaccompanied; I knew they needed to have a solid beat as an image of the plod of a hard week; and I felt they had to be stark. I also decided that each line would start on the last note of the previous line as a way of linking through. It’s not a complex tune, but it does take a little bit of concentration!

The line that gets repeated “this week” was powerful, and then I started to think about what might happen in the week. Then I had to stop: what, according to Mark, did happen in the week?

I also realised that I’d set myself a complex rhyming scheme – in the two verses I had written, every line rhymed:

This week the way goes from welcome to fear;
turning the tables, the end is now near.
From widow to soldier the cost becomes clear:
nothing is simple when Jesus is here.

But the rhyming worked, it was part of the style that had come, so I had to stick with it. The third verse brought another quandary too: how do I make it about us, not just a narrative about “them” and “then”. So, the first line went from “This week it feels all the hope slipped away” to “This week WE feel all the hope slips away:

The Garden of Gethsemane © 2019 Getty Images

This week we feel all the hope slips away;
falling asleep at the end of the day;
gone into hiding with nothing to say;
hangs on a cross with no words left to pray.

I still struggle with the last line of the last verse as I fear I have done a linguistic inversion to fit the rhyme scheme (“a seed in the ground dies and new life is grown”), but every hymn is a work in progress, so we’ll see where it takes us.

This year, of course, a new challenge: Luke’s story. Not Mark. I’ll have to see what Luke says happened in that week. Watch this space!

Complete words and music are available here.

For Palm Sunday (in the Gospel of Mark)

This week the cry goes “Hosanna” then “die”;
followers run, and one will just lie;
voices are silenced and some whisper “why?”;
but most of Jerusalem shout “crucify!”

This week the way goes from welcome to fear;
turning the tables, the end is now near.
From widow to soldier the cost becomes clear:
nothing is simple when Jesus is here.

This week it feels like the hope slips away;
falling asleep at the end of the day;
gone into hiding with nothing to say;
hangs on a cross with no words left to pray.

This week the truth of God’s grace will be known;
as fig trees are cursed and money is thrown.
(strange are the ways that God’s presence is shown.)
A seed in the ground dies and new life is grown.

© 2018 potsofpossibility Holy Week 2018

Categories: Holy Week, Lent, Lent and Easter, Making the most of hymns, Sardeson, Anne J., The Passion and the Cross, Worship Resources.

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