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STH Hymn Writing Contest Open to BU Community

Winner gets cash prize and piece performed at Marsh Chapel service


At the risk of sounding profane, how would you like to make a few bucks writing a piece of sacred music?

The School of Theology’s Religion and the Arts Initiative is offering the winner of its annual arts contest—devoted this year to hymn composition—a cash prize and the opportunity to have the work performed at Marsh Chapel. The initiative encourages “critical and practical engagement with the arts in religious contexts across the University and connects people with diverse interests in spiritual expression though the arts,” says its director, Andrew Shenton.

Under the rules (found here), entries may be a full, entirely original composition (lyrics and music), original lyrics to an existing hymn or generic meter, or an original tune for an existing text (as long as there is no copyright infringement—see the rule guidelines about that). Entrants may submit up to two hymns. The contest is open to all BU students, alumni, faculty, and staff.

The first place winner will receive $350 and have the entry performed Wednesday, May 3, by STH’s Seminary Singers at Marsh Chapel’s final service before Commencement. The service starts at 11:10 a.m.

There will be a second-place prize of $150 and a third-place prize of $75. All entries must be submitted through the contest website by 11:59 p.m. Monday, March 13.

“We are defining ‘hymn’ as broadly as people want,” says Shenton, a College of Fine Arts associate professor of musicology and ethnomusicology and James R. Houghton Scholar of Sacred Music at STH. While entrants must veer clear of copyright infringement, “in practice, we are willing to accept anything that doesn’t contravene someone else’s copyright. The music can be of any genre, and it could be a secular hymn.”

Competition coordinator David Penn (STH’18), Shenton’s research assistant, says entries “should relate to your God or gods, interpreted broadly, which means across the religious spectrum”—including nonbelievers. “If you want to write a hymn to nature, go for it.”

A winning hymn “will show evidence of being creative and original,” Penn says. “We don’t want it to be Be Thou My Vision with a couple of words changed.”

Given BU’s association with modern “prophets,” as Penn calls Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) and Howard Thurman (Hon.’67), dean of Marsh Chapel from 1953 to 1965 and the country’s first black dean at a mostly white university, hymns with “a social justice bent” would be one apt form of entry, he says, although “I can’t speak for everyone on the judges committee.”

The Religion and Arts Initiative promotes events involving the intersection of arts and religion, on campus and off. The focus of last year’s contest was photography.

Judging the entries will be Shenton and Carl Daw, an STH adjunct professor of hymnology and and curator of BU’s Nutter-Metcalf Hymnological Collections, Karen Westerfield, an STH professor of worship, Mary Elizabeth Moore, dean of STH, and an as-yet-unselected student.

Winners will be announced April 3.

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Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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