Writing hymns for all the world

SONGS OF PRAISE: Hymn writer Shirley Murray at home in Raumati.
SONGS OF PRAISE: Hymn writer Shirley Murray at home in Raumati.

Have New Zealanders lost their big voice for singing?

Shirley Murray, internationally renowned hymn writer, believes we have.

''I don't see any longer the big community voice we used to have, except in churches, perhaps, or on Anzac Day when we struggle through a few verses of Abide with Me, says the Raumati resident.

She admits to being heartened by the display of singing at last year's All Whites' soccer game in Wellington ''and the witty banners''.

''We are such a musical nation by all sorts of tests. I'd love to reclaim the common voice.''

Over the Easter weekend, Christians around the world will have given voice to one of Mrs Murray's hymns, particularly her most sung hymn, with its Easter message, rist is Alive,set to music by another Kapiti Coast woman, Jillian Bray.

Brought up in a Methodist family, Mrs Murray has been a member of the Presbyterian Church throughout her married life. She and John, her husband of 56 years, have three sons and six grandchildren.

She writes the words to hymns, which are then set to music by composers - and says she values greatly words that push people's thinking into the world we live in.

''I'm despairing of outdated hymns and songs that are irrelevant to contemporary life and the way we live it.

''If congregations have sung hymns this Easter that are medieval but that are meaningful to them, that's fine by me. I choose to write with liberal intent, persuading people to look again at what the Gospels actually say and what new truths can come out of them.

''What has nudged and provoked me are the people I admire who have gone to the edge in terms of taking the gospels seriously and followed the Jesus principles.''

She cites Professor Lloyd Geering who was invited  to be a guest speaker at St Andrews on the Terrace by her husband John, then the church's minister.

''I am also inspired by Peter Benenson, the Jewish Catholic who founded Amnesty International when no-one was doing anything about prisoners of conscience.

''At the Easter season you can't help thinking about unjust trials, imprisonment and torture when you think of the story of Jesus.''

Her hymn Truth Pressed to the Earth  was inspired by the words of Martin Luther King - that ''truth pressed to the earth will always rise again'' - and was written for  Martin Luther King Day in the United States.

A mother of three and grandmother of six, Mrs Murray  grew up in a Methodist family but has been part of the Presbyterian Church since her marriage to John Murray 56 years ago.

In 2001, her services to hymn writing were acknowleded with a New Zealand Order of Merit.

So how does inspiration transform into action?

''It's certainly not a matter of 'today I will write a hymn'. My writing is incredibly fitful  part of my everyday living and doing. I may see something in the newspaper or something else I am reading and pick up a couple of words I want to borrow.''

She says she does not hear a tune for her words as she is writing them, but is guided by a rhythmical metre.

''Hymn writing is a very strict art form and very structured. Each verse has the same metrical structure as the verse before. I believe you have to sing 1000 hymns before you can write one.''

Mrs Murray is also commissioned to write works. Recently a request has come from the American Guild of Organists to a hymn to be sung in Washington Cathedral.

''I have been in Washington Cathedral and it's hung all over with banners of war, so I have included the line 'The cross can never be a weapon' in the hymn.

''What thrills me is the export of New Zealand hymns, both words and music, to overseas countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and throughout Asia.''

New Zealand composers frequently write the music to her words. Ms Bray and Guy Jensen, both from the Kapiti Coast, and Dunedin's Colin Gibson, himself a noted writer of hymns, have created musical compositions for her words.

''Jillian is the only one who sometimes sends me music she has written and asks if I will write words to it and that is very exciting.''

Her publishers, Hope Publishing, have all their hymn writers' words online and any composer may arrange a new setting or write a new setting for the words, with the permission of the publishers' editors. One of her hymns, Loving Spirit, has 17 settings, she says.

''The changes can be written in a choral setting, a different key or mood or theological take. And instrumentation can make a huge difference. One thing it has done has shifted me to see more musical styles for hymn settings.''

Copyright to Mrs Murray's songs is controlled in Britain and the US by an agency that specialises in the task, which, she says, provides a fair deal to writers and composers.

''I hold my own copyright in New Zealand, Australia and Asia.

''I'm happy for people to sing my songs but it does make me mad when people change them or don't credit them to the writer.''

She admits there can be something ''very off-putting'' about the word ''hymn''.

''For people who hear them only at weddings and funerals, and not always at weddings, they can seem very stodgy. Christian people see them as a vehicle for their faith.''

Kapiti Observer