Last year at this time, we published Shirley’s article about her amazing Hymn for Anzac Day. The poignant words are an indictment on the cost and waste of war. They also touch on all those who suffered for their service, or for their beliefs, and emphasizes that “peace is the only way”. The hymn has touched some raw nerves over the years, so we are pleased once again to let Shirley tell the story.
The gentle art of hymn writing?
By Shirley Erena Murray MNZM
Hymn-writing might seem to be an innocuous, rather private occupation.
Not so when you have touched a nerve in the national psyche. A Hymn for Anzac Day, voicing what New Zealanders might consider right for the occasion has brought forth an intriguing raft of reactions. I have a large file of them.
They come from the Defence Department, the RSA, newspapers, church bulletins, a former Prime Minister and the Attorney General.
They come, also, from other countries – Japan, Canada and the USA, where the hymn has been seriously studied and used.
From the first use of the words for the official Chunuk Bair remembrance in 2008, at which Winston Peters presided, to an angry confrontation on a train platform by an enraged local woman, this was never going to be an easy run.
Providing a New Zealand dimension for the occasion
On every Anzac Day of my early experience, (though perhaps less so now, when we don’t do much community singing), the public was asked to join in a traditional hymn or two, such as Abide with Me and O God, our help in ages past.
These came from traditional British hymnals – an irony when one considers the feelings of New Zealanders and Australians towards the military mismanagement of the British command at Gallipoli, and the subsequent disasters.
Where, I wondered, was an NZ expression of our own national feeling about wars and their enduring pain?
I wrote my hymn in 2005 with the firm intention of honouring the Day and paying tribute to my two uncles who at the ages of 21 and 20 volunteered for the Otago Mounted Regiment and survived Gallipoli.
Remembering those who opposed war
I also wrote with the firm intention of commemorating the tremendous courage of those who refused to kill or wear a uniform. Ormond Burton, whom I had met in my student days, was my hero.
I thought of him as I wrote the central verse which was deemed so suspect that the Kapiti Coast District Council, having used it once, banned the hymn thereafter.
Veterans’ Affairs officials also omitted this verse at the Chunuk Bair event.
Another intention was to remind ourselves as a nation that, while we gave due deference to the element of sacrifice, and have become almost morbidly sentimental in the observance of wreath-laying and glorifying war, we were a very brutal and punitive society in our treatment and attitudes to conscientious objectors.
Affirmation in more enlightened quarters
Many of these held firm religious convictions which might echo the words of Norwegian martyr, who was killed by the Nazis, Kaj Munk. He writes of the churches needing a holy rage at the senseless killing of so many, and against the madness of militaries;
a rage at the lie that calls the threat of death and the strategy of destruction, “peace.”
Some affirmations did cheer my spirits. Helen Clark, as Prime Minister and Minister of Culture and Heritage, gave a thumbs-up to the hymn in her Foreword to the NZ Hymnbook Trust collection ‘Hope is our Song’ in 2009:
This hymn will make a significant contribution to the expression of our nation’s identity on Anzac Day. …. I am sure in the years to come, “Hymn for Anzac Day” will be sung in memorial services in NZ and overseas.”
Maybe, but not yet.
Several colleges have discovered and taught the hymn, beginning with Lindisfarne in Hawke’s Bay and Otago Boys’ High School in Dunedin.
Australian churches and prominent Australians, including the Governor of South Australia, have used the hymn for their own Anzac services while New Zealanders in officialdom keep their distance from it.
One important dimension is that the words were given a Maori rendering by Ray McGarvey and Whirimako Black, (both Tuhoe).
The importance of the music
The music is an integral part of all this, and Professor Colin Gibson’s strong setting, with its opening notes like a sad bugle call, gives exactly the right dignity and weight to the words.
This was immediately recognised by the Director of the NZ Army Band, Dwayne Bloomfield, who arranged the music early on and premiered it at the 2007 Wanaka Festival in such a way that everyone could join in. Wonderful! It was simple to do so because this impressive tune is so easily picked up.
But with typical cowardice in the face of challenge from a new tune, church worship leaders saw that the metre would fit Abide with me and used that. I wept. They still do it.
If the national psyche cannot hold more than the idea of remembrance and sacrifice, if the causes and cost of war are not constantly in our mindsets, we may turn our most solemn day into a military funeral parade, with youngsters wearing great-grandfather’s medals and a complete lack of understanding of our own history.
Then the glorification of conflict becomes a sentimental journey.
(Tomorrow we will publish the words of Shirley’s hymn.)