A Hymn Author Comments on One of His Best
Matt Bassford on Writing “Exalted”
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.
— 2 Corinthians 4:7 (NASB)
I can’t find my writer’s notebook from the late 1990s, but if memory serves, I wrote “Exalted” in April 1999, which makes this the 15th anniversary-ish of my having done so. At the time, I had no inkling that it would make its way into the repertoire of the Lord’s church; indeed, to this day, its success leaves me both thankful and bemused. Hopefully, my account of its creation will prove of interest.
In April 1999, I had no idea how to write hymns. I had been through two sessions of Craig Roberts’ Hymninar; I could analyze hymns according to the technical trinity of rhythm, rhyme, and meter; but my own ability to duplicate what I had studied was negligible. Writing an “Abide with Me” or “In the Hour of Trial” was as far beyond me as playing in the NBA.
That was a problem, because I had something I wanted to say. It too came from Craig, from a sermon that he had preached for the Sunday-morning assembly of R.J. Stevens’ 1998 singing school. It was entitled “The Glory and the Shame”, and it was a study of the contrast between Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem and His crucifixion less than a week later.
I became fascinated with the rich irony of the Biblical account. I said to myself, “I should write a hymn about that.” I set pen to paper, gave it my valiant all. . . and failed ignominiously. This was not a, “It’s not THAT bad, Matt” kind of failure. It was more like, “Matt, are you sure that English was your first language?” I am notoriously incapable of determining when something I’ve written is bad, but this time I could tell. It was bad enough to set stray dogs to howling.
Like the builder of Swamp Castle, I tried again a few months later. Also like the builder of Swamp Castle, I failed again. The result looked sort of like a hymn, with rhymes and lines of the appropriate length. However, it had all the elegance and grace of a cinder block. Whatever one needed in order to capture the ironies of the crucifixion in rhyme and meter, I did not possess.
Fine. I couldn’t write hymns. So what? I was still going to write THIS hymn! In the depths of my frustration, I hit upon the expedient of structuring the hymn around parallels, like the Hebrew poets did, rather than using rhyme. Once I made that mental switch, the rest was easy. I banged out the first draft of “Exalted” in about half an hour, and that first draft was substantially what is sung today.
However, my work created another problem. If some determined 20-year-old handed me “Exalted” today, I would tell him it couldn’t work as a hymn because the verse-to-verse structure is bad. As most of our hymns do, “Exalted” has three verses, each intended to be sung to the same tune. That same tune, then, must match the emotional feel of all three verses. In most good hymns, all the verses have the same mood or at least reside in the same general part of the emotional spectrum. This allows the composer to craft a joyful tune that matches the joyful mood of “Hallelujah! Praise Jehovah!” or a rich, sorrowful tune that matches the sorrow of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”.
Those hymns have excellent verse-to-verse structure. The verse-to-verse structure of “Exalted” is terrible. It has one grand verse about the glories of Christ the King, one ironic verse about the vicious way He was received by His people, and one half-and-half verse about the different ways He is received today.
A hymn like that pulls a composer in two. He can’t write a grand tune to match the first verse, because then it won’t match the second. He can’t write an ironic tune to match the second verse, because then it won’t match the first. All he can do is compose a neutral tune that kind-of matches the tone of the entire hymn, but neutral is boring is not sung is a failed hymn.
This is not a hypothetical. I spent years writing hymns that failed because of bad verse-to-verse structure. It still gives me more trouble than any other aspect of hymnwriting. “Exalted” should have ended up on the dust heap with all of those other failed hymns. It didn’t because I, having no idea what I was doing, asked Charli Couchman to write the music.
Charli is a phenomenally talented composer, but “Exalted” may remain her finest work. She’s written plenty of good tunes to good hymns, but in “Exalted” she found a hymn that was destined to die and gave it life. The flawed verse-to-verse structure meant that she could not write an interesting melody, because an interesting melody would be a mismatch to one or more verses. Instead, she wrote a boring, flat melody and made it interesting, even unique, by passing it back and forth between parts. The result is unlike anything I’m familiar with in the tradition of English hymnody, yet simple enough that a congregation with moderate musical gifts can pick it up.
Charli’s success was not apparent at first. If you’ve ever heard a MIDI recording of “Exalted”, it’s terribly boring, and 15 years ago, the MIDI was all we had to go on. However, when the hymn is sung, its chords swell and come to life, infusing both the glory and the suffering of Christ with grandeur. It is quite an achievement.
By profession, I am inclined to supply morals to any story, so here are three. First, it highlights the utility of good old-fashioned stubbornness. Even a brick wall may cave in if you bang your head against it long enough. Second, it helps to have friends who will rescue you from yourself and make you look good!
Finally, though, and most of all, I am reminded that when it comes to the gospel, the talents of the messenger are nothing next to the power of the message. God is perfectly capable of taking a 20-year-old kid in central Missouri, a kid who doesn’t know anything and doesn’t know how to do anything, and using that kid to glorify Him. If there are lines in “Exalted” that confuse you, that’s not because I was particularly profound in 1999. It’s because I wasn’t a very good writer.
And yet, despite the warts, despite the flaws, despite all the things that I yearn to go back and red-pen, the majesty of the story of Jesus shines through. That’s not only all that I can hope for from my hymns. It’s also all I can hope for from me.
Posted by M. W. Bassford at 7:28 AM, Monday 14 April 2014
NOTE: EXALTED is #198 in Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs
Read more, including comments, at http://hisexcellentword.blogspot.com/2014/04/writing-exalted.html