Originality in hymn writing

One basic goal I strive towards: the hymn must be special.  After all is said and done, after all the technical restrictions that I’ve mentioned have been satisfied, if it doesn’t bring something unique to the table, if it substantially mimics something that’s already in the hymn book, then what’s the point?  It won’t be performed widely or come to be valued by people if it doesn’t contain something they don’t already get (and usually better) somewhere else.  This is perhaps the hardest thing to achieve and it is not for the composer to say whether he or she has been successful in the attempt.  I know that I enjoy these compositions almost a decade after I wrote them, most of them are unlike anything in the current hymnbook and I’m excited to make them available to others.

Conclusion: the creative process

I hit a rich creative vein with this work, especially in the first months, composing two or three or more hymns a week, sometimes two or three different settings of the same text in a matter of days.  I recall once starting on a text and emailing Scott the finished score an hour later.  I worked out new tunes humming to myself on the train to work, walking home at night, lying in bed, sitting in sacrament meeting, walking through the mall: when you get in a creative groove like this, not only does the inspiration flow quickly, but in wide variety, the subconscious sometimes creating melodies seemingly spontaneously in the depths of your mind.

I recalled at the time the story of a 20-something Paul McCartney at the height of his writing career, when he and John were creating hit song after hit song after hit song, whole albums full of them.  Paul says that one night he awoke in the middle of the night hearing  a song in his head.  He stumbled over to the small piano in his room and played it through a few times so he could remember it and went back to sleep.  He did remember it in the morning: it was a beautiful little tune that he was sure he must have unconsciously remembered from somewhere.  He would play “Name That Tune” with people to see if they could recognize it, tell him where it came from, but everyone said, “Paul, it’s beautiful mate, but I don’t think I’ve heard it before. It’s an original as far as I can tell.”  Eventually he wrote words to go with his dream-tune: “Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away”.

Such magical, effortless creativity; and it seemed it would go on forever.  But it didn’t.

It never does.

I knew as I wrote hymn after hymn (and they seemed very good to me and to people I played them for) that this was a moment in my life to be savoured, a moment that would be one day but a memory.

It’s a good memory.  A sacred memory.

from the Forword to Hymns of Light


One Comment

  1. Gerald Smith

    Mark, thank you so much for your sincere and heartfelt comments on the creative process. I like to think of myself as being a creative person who struggled for years using my talents in both work and church settings. After moving to the Oregon coast years ago and living in what was truly an artist colony setting I finally came to understand and enjoy the journey of creating and to think less about the end result as being the important part.

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