Hymn Sings Musical Praises
STH competition winner to be performed today
Heather Josselyn-Cranson had been struggling to create a song last winter for BU’s first hymn-writing competition and to honor the work of one of her former professors at the School of Theology.
Inspiration finally struck, not while Josselyn-Cranson was reading biblical scripture, but during a quiet moment driving around her hometown of Orange City, Iowa, with her husband, Matt, at the wheel, and her daughter asleep in the backseat.
She decided to draw on the musical aspirations of the ancient Greeks in writing her hymn. “The Greeks thought there was music all around the universe,” says Josselyn-Cranson (STH’00,’05), director of music ministries at Northwestern College.
To the ancient Greeks, what is now known by the Latin phrase musica mundana referred to the order of the universe, created by God in a mathematical sense of “measure, number, and weight,” she says. They saw the proportions of the spheres of the planets and stars as a form of music, a kind of harmony.
“As a musician, it’s hard to argue with the theme of celebrating the gift of music,” she says.
Apparently, the competition jury agreed. Her entry, “Planets Humming as they Wander,” to the tune “Musica mundana,” was chosen as the winner from among 40 submissions. STH’s Seminary Singers will perform the hymn at a community worship service today at Marsh Chapel at 11 a.m., with the help of the congregation.
The trick to writing a hymn, says Josselyn-Cranson, lies in making the piece simple enough for a congregation to sing. “As a composer, it’s fun to use different chords and dissonance in odd ways, but that doesn’t necessarily help the congregation,” she says. “You’re always paring down and paring back and finding a melody that’s singable, but still appropriate as a song of praise.”
She weighed each word, drawing out the syllables, before composing the music. “I lived with the text for a while and practiced saying the words to myself, getting a sense of what rhythm would work best for them,” she says.
Growing up in Maine, Josselyn-Cranson sang hymns in church and with a children’s choir. “I was always surrounded by music,” she says. “And I saw how important it was to people. They carried their faith in the songs they sang, in the songs they loved.
“People who can’t remember a line from scripture can sing from memory the first, second, third, even fourth verses of hymns they know.”
After majoring in music composition at Bates College, she headed to Russia with the Peace Corps to teach English, and then thought about grad school.
“One of my professors at Bates said there were graduate programs in church music,” says Josseyln-Cranson. “My husband, who’s from Massachusetts, said, ‘Boston University is big — see if they have a program.’”
She learned that BU had a program in music ministry, that the University was founded by United Methodists, and that it has the oldest United Methodist seminary in North America. “You just have to stand back and thank God,” she says, laughing, “because it certainly wasn’t my wisdom and guidance that directed me there.”
At BU, she worked with Carl P. Daw, Jr., retired executive director of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, an STH adjunct professor of hymnology, and the competition honoree. “This is just an opportunity, with a very small thing, to express gratitude to him for all he’s done for the church,” she says, “all the hymns he’s written that give Christians a voice. He has a depth of knowledge.
“I learned that there was more to music ministry than just the performance aspect,” she says. “That points to how powerful music is and how there’s a desire to use that vehicle as a way to express ourselves to God, or on the contrary, to hear God’s word to us.”
For Daw, music is integral to worship, since hymns “are the last, careful impression people get from the service,” he says. “I like to remind clergy that no one leaves church humming the sermon.”
In the player above, listen to Josselyn-Cranson read the text from her hymn. Below, listen to the performance, recorded April 21
School of Theology hymn competition winner “Musica mundana,” by Heather Josselyn-Cranson (STH’00,’05), will be performed by the Seminary Singers and the congregation today, April 21, at the weekly 11 a.m. community worship service at Marsh Chapel, 735 Commonwealth Ave.1 Comments