“On Jordan’s Banks” Normally these music notes deal more with the text of a hymn than the music. Although the music is important, it is the text that conveys the meaning and delineates the hymn as being serviceable for Christian liturgical use. However, this hymn’s striking tune compels this writer to play and sing it, and hence write about it, with vigor.
Perhaps the writer of music notes is as guilty as anyone of promoting organist stereotypes. We all have heard (I think?) organists who “perform” their duties whilst playing every hymn in the same tempo (usually very slow or very fast), with the same articulation (how much space is between the notes, ie., legato or staccato), and with the same registrations (the choice of stops one can combine on the organ to make unique sounds.) This writer hates to be too rough—oftentimes these organists have no training and are just doing the best they can—but oftentimes organists who can do better, and know better, simply play every hymn the same way out of laziness or out of intentional disregard to the origin of the tune. This is one such tune that does not take well to such misapplication of ignorance. Turning to your hymnal, #344, you will see the salient historical information at the bottom of the page. The tune says “Michael Praetorius, 1571-1621.)” Praetorius was one of the great early baroque composers prior to Bach. His collections of instrumental and vocal music are amongst the most rhythmically-vital and melodically-engaging of the era. This tune is attributed to him because it was published in his Musae Sionae (1608); however, it existed prior to that in other forms in print, and further back probably existed in the Middle Ages. You’ll notice that the tune in LSB is in a strong triple, iambic meter of weak/strong, further emphasized by long/short. Another form of the tune is set in a more tame duple meter. The tune in LSB demands a rhythmic approach and, as such, it also demands a brisk tempo reminiscent of (perhaps) a medieval peasant dance, rugged and without inhibitions. This writer’s approach is to play it as fast as the average person can sing (and comprehend) the syllables. The words on the quarter notes, the short values, are pretty much just single syllables or simple words as “a,” “an,” and “the.” Yet, in the first stanza, “glad” appears at the end—that requires the singer to speak several different consonants as well as a difficult vowel. I would orient the tempo to the smooth production, and hence comprehension, of these words. But it must lilt along at a good clip!
Consider also the shape of this tune, which may well be a thousand years old. It begins on D, the tonic, low in the range. The first line moves up slightly, then down in a small arch. The next line continues the arch theme as it continues up linearly to consecutive high Ds, before beginning the denouement where it ends on low D again. This arch form is very natural, organic, and at least suggests an origin in folk music. Whether this tune actually originates in the medieval folk tradition, it is certainly vastly removed from the solemn meters of chant, whose music serves the sole purpose of conveying the text. Here, the music also demands to be heard, played, and sung in an engaging way! It is perhaps tunes like this that would disquiet the nascent pietist in all of us, for they rather cry out for one to tap your feet, if not actually dance.
The text is not original to the tune and deserves its own theological treatise. Nonetheless, having visited the Jordan River barely two months ago, this writer now thinks of this hymn (as well as much of the biblical narrative) in a different way. The Jordan River itself is really a mere muddy stream; however, it is pretty much the sole source of water for Israel, proceeding as it does from the Sea of Galilee. Many geo-political conflicts over the centuries in the region have been attributed to the ownership of resources, and primarily water, of which the Jordan River is the main source in Judea and in the south of the country. This writer had always thought of vast banks of the Jordan, sung about here as well as in Black spirituals, and thought perhaps rocky cliffs, with a Loralei perched atop luring sailors to their doom, or perhaps at least with picturesque vineyards, if not at least beaches or a pretty treeline, with birds singing sweetly in the trees. No, indeed. The Jordan was more like the creek that runs through Bob Woodruff Park during the summer months—you know it is there, but it hardly makes a scene. The Jordan is no Rhine, Mississippi or Danube! But seeing its importance to Israel through the millennia simply reinforces the importance of baptism in the life of the Christian. It is really usually not that outwardly dramatic of an event. The water is minimal, but its power comes from its infusion with the Word. So it was with John’s preaching about Jesus, and our preparations for Christ’s coming this Advent and Christmastide. Although these times may be busy and stressful outside the Church, from within we simply retell and relive Christ’s birth. We know how the story begins. It is comfortable, and it is familiar, sometimes too much so. We know how it ends. Advent is a bit like the muddy Jordan, winding its way inconspicuously through the bustle and busyness of the secular “holidays.” May we take John’s cry to heart and find quiet refuge in our baptisms this time of year.