When singing a hymn, it is often interesting to learn which came first, the text or the tune. And if written separately, who put them together? Those who write new songs for congregational worship fall into three main categories.
First are writers of hymn texts and lyrics who work separately from musicians. Over the centuries, those make up the largest group of songwriters for the church. Sometimes the writers start from scratch, sometimes they begin with a tune in mind. New texts sung to familiar tunes have a better chance of being sung in worship, since new tunes are often more difficult or challenging for congregations to sing.
Composers of tunes for those texts form a second category. Often composers comb through old texts, providing fresh sounds to make these texts come alive again. Contemporary composers have the tougher job, since it is very hard to write new music that is fresh and yet accessible for congregations, which is why so many worship planners go back to tried-and-true tunes they know their congregations can handle without difficulty.
A third (smaller) category includes those gifted in creating both lyrics and melody. Congregational singing is one of the most collaborative activities of worship; it comes as no surprise that many worship songwriters’ talents arise in collaboration with others. Just as worship planning is best done collaboratively, so too is the preparation of congregational songs that old and young (and all those in between) can sing together. Composers and text writers are often delighted to work collaboratively, each responding to the other in a kind of compositional dance, and each making moves that result in a seamless unity of a text and tune.
Sometimes two people work together so closely, one perhaps more gifted with text and another with music, that both names are attached to the whole; both text and tune were formed out of a back-and-forth collaboration.
Against that backdrop, enter contemporary Irish songwriter Keith Getty. Getty was unknown in North America until the release of his very first worship song in 2002. “In Christ Alone,” a song he wrote collaboratively with Stuart Townend (see RW 71) has had a tremendous reception; it has been recorded more than forty times, from cathedral versions to folk settings. It has been on the Top 25 CCLI list in the UK (3), Australia (11), and Canada (24), and is also very much loved in a wide range of settings in the United States—from hymn-like settings played by organ at funerals of elderly saints to praise band settings by young people. “In Christ Alone” is a hymn in every sense: it has stanzas, rhyme, and the structure of a traditional hymn—a surprise to some band musicians who thought they had left hymns behind!
Involved in church music from his teen years, and studying to become a composer/producer, Getty spent his early career traveling nationally and internationally, working with many artists on arranging and recording projects. His pastor in Belfast encouraged him also to write for the church in ways that everyone could sing. In 2001 he met Stuart Townend, and with their complementary gifts, they tried writing a song together.
The process was instructive; for “In Christ Alone,” they began with an idea, eager to work with a “big picture” of God and the work of Christ to help nurture not only the faith but also daily life of Christians. With the general narrative and theological concept of the song in place, Getty wrote the music. His music was in effect an exposition, a proclamation of a text as yet unwritten. Only then were the lyrics added, fleshing out the concept on top of the melody, both of which arose from the same reflection.
That process—starting with a concept, realizing the ideas in melody, and then fleshing out the melody with a text—resonates with many young people for whom music, not text, is the primary language, and the sound, not the words, is paramount. In Getty and Townend’s collaborative effort on their first hymn, text and tune support each other powerfully.
After the cross-over success of “In Christ Alone,” Getty made a serious commitment to concentrate on what he calls “modern hymns”—organic songs rooted in the kinds of melodies that have always sustained folk music and hymnody (see interview, p. 14).
He became convinced that the complex rhythms of many contemporary worship songs and much worship music was too difficult for congregational singing, and in fact was rooted more in the performance culture than in the more humble settings of congregational song. He wanted to write songs that could be sung intergenerationally, reaching out to old and young alike, both in and beyond the walls of the church.
To follow that vision, he left his professional career as an arranger and producer; he moved to Geneva, Switzerland, with his wife, Kristyn, whom he married in 2004—in effect going into retreat in order to explore a new kind of contemporary modern hymn. Since then they have been composing and traveling a great deal; in 2005 they did a cross-country tour of the United States, and with the reception they received, moved in 2006 to Cleveland, Ohio. Kristyn has collaborated with him on many songs and also released a set of children’s songs (see review, p. 46). Their songs, including different arrangements and recordings, can be accessed and purchased easily at their website, www.gettymusic.com.
Here are four songs for the Christmas season composed by Keith Getty in collaboration with others. Like good worship planning, perhaps a team approach is the ideal for songwriters too!
Joy Has Dawned
Like “In Christ Alone,” “Joy Has Dawned” is a collaborative effort between Keith Getty and Stuart Townend. Getty notes, “In our writing relationship there is a strong degree of partnership, and that partnership has become more integrated the longer we have worked together and got to trust each others’ opinions on things. He has very strong opinions on melodies, being such a gifted musician, and most hymns will follow my lyrical concept for where the song should go. For the most part, however, Stuart is the lyrical genius.”
Also like “In Christ Alone,” “Joy Has Dawned” draws a big picture of the birth, life, and reconciling work of Christ. The first line reaches back to the beginning of creation, “Joy has dawned upon the world, promised from creation.” Four stanzas later, the song ends with the work of Christ accomplished, “the Lord of history.”
The first stanza also reaches across the globe with the coming of Christ as a world event with “hope for every nation.” Then begins the paradox of the “humble gift of love” (st. 1) contrasting the might of the Prince of Life with the humility of his birth (st. 2). The story of Jesus’ birth comes in stanza 3, and the final stanza erupts in praise to the Lord of history.
The melody is easily learned; hear it once and you’ll know it. There is just enough variety to keep it interesting.
The structure is similarly transparent, with a meter of 76 76 D. This song could be played as well on the organ as by a band with keyboard improvisation adding to the four-part texture chosen for RW. I could hear this song played brightly, with trumpets on stanzas 1 and 4; I could also hear this song sung more meditatively, perhaps even chorally, for the two middle stanzas.
Born Where the Shadows Lie
Keith collaborated with his wife, Kristyn, on “Born Where the Shadows Lie,” also a reflection on the meaning of the Incarnation. The song begins with a short low phrase, in the shadows, as it were, then moves forward and upward in a long phrase contrasting the humility of one “born helpless” who is yet “our Lord Immanuel.” That pattern of alternating short and longer, more urgent phrases is carried throughout the song. This song is quiet and reflective, with the word “born” repeated over and over again at the beginning of each long line. The range is quite low, not uncommon for contemporary songs.
Keith also collaborated with his wife Kristyn on “Imagine,” a song of longing that would be very appropriate during Advent or any service where the emphasis is on invitation and healing. The song, written in first-person singular, both invites and addresses those who hunger and thirst and suffer, helping broken people to imagine a new thing. Perhaps this song could be sung in connection with a passage from Isaiah, who called out to the people of Israel when they were lost, helping prepare them for the coming Messiah: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland” (Isa. 43:19). Helping people imagine a new thing may provide the context for them to hear good news.
But the question can also be addressed to the church: Who among us hears the voice of the hungry, the thirsty? Everyone can be challenged in this song—those longing for someone to help them (that is, everyone!) as well as those committed to helping others see Christ in us.
Because of that double meaning, consider having a choir or soloist sing the first time; perhaps another time invite everyone to join on the second stanza. The music is a bit more challenging for congregations, and the text is less like a hymn than the two earlier examples, but this song is still very accessible.
Celtic Christmas Blessing
This short, lovely song of blessing would make a beautiful closing to a service of lessons and carols; it certainly could be sung congregationally, but the close harmony would also make this an excellent candidate for a choral blessing. Each phrase begins the same way, building gently and then subsiding.
The text is gentle and comforting, recognizing the need for the love, hope, and joy that Christ brings, reaching to the “depths of your deepest sigh,” “through every pain.”
This is a little gem, not unlike the short songs from the Iona Community or the Community of Taizé. Unfortunately, the use of so many male pronouns will prevent this song from wide exposure among many churches in North America; the issue of inclusive language is more of an issue here than it has yet become in the UK.