Music in Worship is Selah's occasional newsletter for church musicians, with interviews and helpful articles for choir directors, organists, and leaders of congregational song.
An Interview with
Richard Leach is one of the best writers of hymn texts at the end of the 20th century. This interview (from March 1999) gives you a glimpse of his start in hymn writing and what his interests and concerns are.
How did you start writing hymns?
I've enjoyed reading and writing since I was a boy. I became a pastor in 1978, and pastors of course write all sorts of things, sermons, prayers and other worship texts. I had never taken a course in hymnody or had it explained to me, but I began to pick up on how it worked--meter and rhyme--from dealing with it as the leader of worship every week. And I wrote one hymn way back then. But it was in 1987 that I began writing hymns "seriously."
What was special about 1987?
I believe the Hymn Society had a contest for a hymn on some particular theme in 1986. I heard about it through someone or a publication in the Connecticut Conference of the UCC, and it interested me. I never did enter the contest, but I remembered the name "Hymn Society." In 1987 I had a sabbatical from the parish and was auditing courses at Yale Divinity School. I went to the library there and found a copy of the society's journal, The Hymn--the first I'd seen. Also, I came across Brian Wren's first book, Faith Looking Forward, in the YDS bookstore. Before I found the journal I hadn't realized that there was a community that cared about hymn poetry, and before I read Faith Looking Forward I had little idea that anyone was writing serious contemporary Christian poetry in the traditional form of the hymn. Faith Looking Forward surprised and delighted me. And I had time that spring, so I started writing hymns myself.
Were you published right away?
I sent some hymn poems to The Hymn in 87 or early 88, and one was called an "honorable mention" among the unsolicited texts the HYMN receives. That was encouraging! So I kept on, and in 1989 The Hymn published two pieces: "Feel the Spirit in the Kicking" and "The Empty Handed Fishermen." Then in 1991, another, "O Carpenter, Why Leave the Bench." I had met Brian Wren at a workshop at Princeton Seminary by then. He gave me some valuable critique through the mail, and used several of my pieces in a newsletter called NewSong that he and Hope Publishing were putting out at the time. By 1993 I had quite a number of texts that I thought were publishable. I sent them to Selah that year, and received a very enthusiastic response from David Schaap. That led to my association with Selah.
This has been how you came to write hymns and be published. What about why you write them?
There are a number of reasons. I love the Bible, and I like to interpret Bible passages with vivid imagery. I believe a hymn is a good place for that. Sometimes it's a parallel piece to a sermon I've preached. After an Advent sermon on all that Mary says yes to, when she says "Let it be to me according to your word" to the angel in Luke 1, I wrote the poem which became the hymn "Told of God's Favor" [from New Songs of Rejoicing and Over the Waves of Words] and the anthem "Mary Said Yes."
Sometimes I come up with images that work better in a hymn than I think they would in a sermon. My hymn "Twelve Silver Coins," [from Over the Waves of Words] for example. It takes the disciples as twelve coins in Jesus' purse. You might possibly use that in a sermon, but I think it's better as a hymn.
Another reason I write is my enjoyment of the craft of hymn poetry--the use of meter, rhyme, imagery, sound and word color, all the things that go into poetry in general (though lots of contemporary poetry does not use meter and rhyme). It's a pleasure to sit down and work with those tools until something is built that stands by itself.
A third reason would be my love of music and song. I am not at all accomplished musically, but I like many kinds of music, and many kinds of song, and I delight in creating work that is sung. This is a good place to mention some of my composer friends: Andrew Donaldson, Rusty Edwards, Al Fedak, Roy Hopp, Amanda Husberg, Curt Oliver, David Ashley White. It's a joy to have these and other gifted people write music for my words.
You've mentioned hymns that parallel sermons. How has your work as a pastor influenced your writing?
In several ways. One is the sustained Bible reading, and going through the lectionary, that one does in order to write and preach a sermon each week. The Bible stories soak in. Another is, trying to avoid platitude and cliche in what I write. Church members deserve more. I think I try to make my writing honest. I don't want my hymns to look at the world through rose-colored glasses, or mud-colored ones either. We can sing out beyond ourselves, we can sing a faith we don't completely feel on a given day, but the words for that should have integrity. They should be grounded in the Bible, for example.
That sounds very serious. Can a hymn be playful?
Oh, sure. For example, I've written a series of hymns based on Medieval Epiphany legends. In one, "King Herod's Feast," Herod says that if the Messiah has been born, the roasted chicken he's eating will stand up and crow--and the room fills with the sound of crowing. Herod is spooked. There is laughter in our faith, and in the Bible! Hymns can reflect that.
Tell us some of what you like to read.
Walter Brueggemann is someone I've read a lot, learned a lot from, and been inspired by, both in my preaching and my poetry. Brueggemann is a Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Seminary in Georgia. He often expounds particular Bible passages in hard hitting ways, very contemporary and probing. Brueggemann points out that when we listen to a Bible story we can take the role of anyone or anything in the story we wish, even the inanimate objects! I drew on that idea in a recent hymn, "Sycamore Song," where the singers play the role of the sycamore tree in the Zacchaeus story.
The late May Sarton is a poet I've read a lot and like very much. She wrote in traditional forms as well as in free verse. I've recently been reading Seamus Heaney's Selected Poems, and a book by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, translated by Robert Bly. I use "off" rhyme more than some hymn poets, and I think that comes from reading contemporary poetry, where the rhymes can be quite subtle. I also write without rhyme sometimes.
Among hymn poets, I always get a lot from Brian Wren's and Thomas Troeger's work. Jaroslav Vajda is another superb contemporary hymn poet.
I believe you have an interest in older hymn poets as well as contemporary ones?
Yes, I've enjoyed finding some 19th century hymnals in antique bookstores, and reading through them. It makes me feel like a detective. Some of the hymns don't work well today, and some are surprisingly relevant and good, but basically unknown. Finding those is fun. My hymn "Rise, My Song and Stretch Your Wings," which is the text of the anthem, "The Falconer," with Al Fedak's wonderful music, was inspired by an 18th century hymn poem, "Rise, My Soul and Stretch Thy Wings," by Robert Seagrave. So this has been an additional source of inspiration for me, besides Bible passages.
For the most part, you write words, and music for them is composed afterward. Does it ever work the other way around?
From time to time. When David and Ginnie Schaap's daughter Elizabeth Rose was born, Rusty Edwards sent me a tune he had written and asked for a text celebrating her birth. That was quite a challenge! But I enjoyed doing it, and the song that resulted was adapted into a baptismal hymn ["Now We Can See," in Rusty Edwards's Grateful Praise]. And a few times, an old tune has captivated me, and I've written for it. The Easter anthem "An Empty Tomb at Early Dawn" was written after I listened to a great recording of the early American tune NORTH PORT. Deborah Holden-Holloway set the anthem, and she chose a similar tune, LOVING KINDNESS.
You mentioned loving music and song, and I know you're a jazz fan.
I have several hundred jazz records, I still have a turntable to play them on, and they still sound great. Now of course I buy CDs. John Coltrane is my very favorite, and I do like what's called "free jazz," Cecil Taylor, Charles Gayle, music that goes to extremes. But my tastes are pretty broad, because I also love Duke Ellington, and the "American Songbook"--the songs of Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael and so on, the singing of Fred Astaire. Among pop performers, my favorite is the Canadian singer and songwriter, Bruce Cockburn. The first line of my hymn "When Broken Is Normal" [in New Songs of Rejoicing] was inspired by his song, "The Trouble With Normal."
Quite a range of music!
Yes. And I am currently the recordings reviewer for The Hymn Society, so I listen to CDs based on hymns that come my way, by professional or amateur singers and musicians. Sometimes there's a gem among those.
Do you write commissioned pieces?
I've done a few and would like to do more. One interesting one was a hymn to St. Agnes for St. Agnes school in St. Paul, Minnesota. Writing words to sing to a saint was a new experience for me! Another commission was a hymn for the 75th anniversary of a Methodist church in St. Paul. They had made a banner with hand prints of church members on it for the celebration, and the hymn I wrote was called "A Tapestry of Open Hands." Curt Oliver wrote the music for both those pieces.
Also, I've written a number of anthem texts at the request of various composers. I enjoy that, the poetry can be much freer than in a hymn.
Any recent projects you'd like to mention?
Yes, more work with Curt. We are writing a "Peace Cantata," to be premiered on in May  at Curt's church, Macalester/Plymouth United Church, in St. Paul. The theme is world peace, and it was commissioned in honor of the 70th birthday of Alfred Aeppli, a member of Macalester/Plymouth who was born in Switzerland. The texts are mostly done. It includes scripture, free verse and strophic verse, hymns and songs. I think it will be called "Blessed Are the Peacemakers."