In July of 2014, Jeffery Rowthorn and Russell Schulz-Widmar published a hymnal, Sing of the World Made New—Hymns of Justice, Peace and Christian Responsibility. This ecumenical, justice-focused collection is meant to expand worshippers’ praise of God and inflame their passion for justice. Jeffery worked on this hymnal during his residency at the Collegeville Institute in 2010 and 2011.
Originally from Wales, Jeffery moved to Connecticut in the 1970s as a founding member of the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University. He was consecrated Bishop Suffragan of Connecticut, and he later became Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe. He lives in Salem, Connecticut, with his wife, Anne.
In Part One of this interview, Elisabeth Kvernen spoke with Jeffery about his approach to the hymn-writing process.
How did you start writing hymns?
I grew up in an evangelical Anglican congregation with a strong choir and a wonderful tradition of hymn singing. I participated in that choir as a young member of the congregation. After my ordination, I served at a little church outside of Oxford, with about 15 people in the choir. They invited me to choir practice one evening because they wanted to know why I picked the particular hymns I did each week. So I had to do some research, which I found I really enjoyed. I owe those members of the choir a huge debt, because they excited my interest in hymns. That interest has only grown over the years.
In 1974, I was teaching a course at Yale on contemporary worship, along with a musician colleague. He gave his students from the music school the task of writing a new hymn tune, using a Psalm for the text. I decided to follow his example, and assigned my students from the divinity school the task of writing a new metrical Psalm, turning one of the Psalms from the Bible into a hymn of four or five stanzas. As I was driving home that day, I realized that I had given my students an assignment that I had never done myself. So I sat down and wrote a metrical, rhyming version of Psalm 148 and shared it with the class. And that was that. Two years later, out of the blue, I was told that that this hymn had won first place in a contest. I didn’t even know there had been a competition!
How do you go about writing a hymn—what is your process?
I usually write on commission. I wait until someone asks me to write a hymn for some occasion—a celebration, an anniversary, or an event to honor someone. Sometimes a grateful congregation commissions a hymn; or, as happened in another case, it was a priest whose congregation had spent a lot of money renovating their chancel and organ, after a tornado planted the church spire neatly into the organ loft.
The best-known hymn I’ve written is called, “Lord, You Give the Great Commission.” Some students at Yale and Berkley Divinity Schools said to me before Baccalaureate in 1978, “We know you write hymns. Write one for us.” So I did. That hymn has appeared in quite a few hymnals, and has generally been well received.
Sometimes the gestation period of my hymns rivals the time of gestation for an elephant (which has the longest gestation period of any mammal, at 22 months). Every time I write a hymn, I go through a period of thinking that the words will never come. But eventually they do.
I generally begin by deciding what tune to have in mind as I write. People are better able to sing new words when they already know the tune, so I choose well-known tunes. This choice sets up the rhyme scheme and meter, and that’s half the battle.
Next, I use the Bible as a reference. I use the concordance to find as many references as I can to “music,” for example. I think about the person being honored, or the situation that is being celebrated, and I cover sheets of paper with anything that might be useful—a quote here, a memory there, a Bible verse here, a poetic phrase that crosses my mind there. Eventually I have the first verse, and from there I use the pattern of the first to create the succeeding verses.
I say jokingly that I’m only 5,950 hymns behind Charles Wesley, and 8,950 hymns behind Fanny Crosby. Some people are blessed with the ability to write very quickly; it’s more of a struggle for me to write hymns.
What is the relationship between text and music in the process of hymn writing?
Some people are fortunate enough to be able to write both text and tune. I tend to write texts to familiar tunes, since most people don’t read music. If you give them a tune that they’ve never heard before, it often takes every bit of their mental energy, even with a choir, just to sing the tune. When that happens, the words may as well be from the New York telephone directory. They cannot give heed to the words, because the tune is claiming all their attention.
The text I’m writing right now is going to be set to music by a distinguished composer. I will hand in the text by early fall, and the composer will write a tune specific to the words I’ve written for the occasion.
Quite a few people have come across a text of mine and said either, “Would you let me write a tune for it?” or, “I have written a tune, here it is.” This is a great compliment, since no composer is going to set music to words that he or she is not in some measure touched or inspired by.
What is your favorite hymn?
That’s an impossible question. But I will tell you about one that’s in our new hymnal—I think it’s an attractive tune and a wonderful text. Robert Lowry, who was a pastor, professor, and evangelist in the second half of the 19th century, wrote a text called, “My Life Flows on in Endless Song.” The tune, which he also wrote, is called, “How Can I Keep From Singing.” The refrain goes:
No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
how can I keep from singing?
This hymn speaks to me, given all the things that have happened in my life, good and bad. How can I keep from singing?
Read Part Two of this interview next week, in which Jeffery discusses the process of putting together a hymnal.
Image: Light through Clouds by Florin Gorgan on Flickr via a Creative Commons License. “This is a Day, Lord”—Words: Copyright 1992 Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188; Music: Harmonization copyright 1999 GIA Publications, Inc., 7404 S. Mason Avenue, Chicago , IL 60638; reprinted with permission.
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