On the Writing of Hymn Texts: “Always Trust Your Ears!”

 

This morning I preached for the first time in 2010 to the little Berkshire hill-town congregation at the Federated Church of Charlemont, while their pastor was on a mission trip to Nicaragua. It was a gracious experience in so many ways, and a homecoming of sorts, since it was my seventh visit there as a guest preacher since 2007.

It was also there that I led my very first worship service after my sudden retirement from disability in 2004, which was a deeply moving experience.  I have a warm spot in my heart for country churches. I started my ministry back in 1975 in two little village churches in rural Maine, and I always feel at home in churches like them, especially this one.

For a country church Charlemont has extraordinary music. The gifted organist and choir director, Esther Haskell, who is a school librarian at her day job, does a masterful job, and sometimes it seems like nearly half of the congregation is in the choir. The composer and arranger Alice Parker, who needs no introduction to many of you, also worships in that congregation, and has worked closely with Esther to make congregational singing an important part of their worship.

For some weird reason, soon after my brain injury in 2000, I suddenly started writing hymn texts. I can’t recall ever writing a poem in my life before, and I have certainly never had any training, but these texts started tumbling out of me in the early morning hours after many a sleepless night, often complete and in meter needing few if any changes. I’ve told this to various of my neurology specialists, and they have no explanation for it, and it might just be a coincidence, but I don’t think so. Maybe Olive Sacks would be interested!  The human brain is a marvel and a mystery. Take good care of yours.

So on this February 13, I posted a Lenten hymn text that I wrote back in 2004, not long before I had to pull the plug on my 22 year pastorate. It is called “You Won’t Despise a Broken Heart.”

The text is very much in the spirit of Lent, but the last verse ends on an Easter note, based on the church’s practice of counting the Sundays as being “in” Lent, but not “of” Lent, which is why the forty days don’t add up, if you’ve ever wondered about that.  And the closing Easter note in the text is also appropriate because every Sunday of the year, even in Lent, is a celebration of the Resurrection.

So far, so good.  But when I went to post it,  I counted all the syllables to make sure it was truly in Common Meter (C.M.), which is 8.6.8.6.  To my dismay I discovered that a couple of the lines in one of the verses didn’t add up. I liked the hymn the way it was, but I wanted it to be metrically correct, so I added a couple of words to make the numbers come out right before I posted it. But the changes definitely took something away from the poetry, and I never liked them.

When I spoke by phone with Esther earlier in the week she had suggested that it might be an appropriate hymn to sing today for this Second Sunday in Lent,  which pleased me.  But she gently suggested that a few minor changes be made in one of the verses to make it more singable, and I knew what she was going to say before she said it.

The changes she suggested were, of course,  to eliminate the “corrections” that I had made, and I told her so, and about my worry that the lines wouldn’t have the right number of syllables. She has been an English teacher in Amherst and taught poetry there for many years.

“Always trust your ears,” she told me. I ask her how one shows that when it is just a written text without music. She said, “I’ll ask Alice!” And she did. The answer was simple. Just write it out, and when it is sung (if you have trusted your ears) the music will tell the congregation how to sing it. (If the music and text are shown together, as in a hymnal, then you divide the words up with special hyphen-like marks that probably have a name, but I don’t know what it is.)

Unlike some of my other hymn texts, this one has never had an original tune written for it, and since I left the pastorate shortly after it was written, I had never heard it sung.

But this morning I did!  Esther and Alice suggested the lovely Scottish tune “Crimond” for the music, and that is what we sang, and I really loved it. So I have gone back to my post of February 13 and restored the text to its original form, and the recommended tune is now “Crimond.”  You can find the hymn text here.  And it is not (yet) commercially copyrighted (nobody gets paid, in other words), so if you want to use it this Lent in worship, be my guest.

And so it was that I learned an important lesson about writing hymn texts: “Always trust your ears!”

(Photo by M. T. Floyd of R. L. Floyd, Charlemont, MA, Lent 2007)

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3 thoughts on “On the Writing of Hymn Texts: “Always Trust Your Ears!”

  1. >Richard,My ears always perk up when I hear the term Federated Church since I pastor one here in Penn NE Conf UCC (NE Penn Synod ELCA). We are an old Union Church that went into what we called Shared Ministry – maintaining distinctness of the congregations on paper while being served by one pastor and sharing one common liturgy for worship together – and then, five years ago, "federated" by creating a new corporate entity that is affiliated with both the UCC and the ELCA.With what church bodies is the Charlemont church affiliated? Does federated mean the same thing there as here?Mike FrostZion's Stone Church, New Ringgold, PAwww.zionstonechurch.org

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