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On Jordan's Bank

“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.

Posted by Benjamin Kolodziej with

Saviour of the Nations, Come


“Savior of the Nations, Come”  Today’s liturgy is centered around this hymn, appointed to be sung each year on this first Sunday of Advent. Both the organ prelude and offertory are settings of this famous tune. The text is ancient.  Composed by Ambrose of Milan (who baptized St Augustine) before 397 AD, the hymn was so important in the medieval church that Martin Luther translated it to German in 1524.  Even the tune is a modification of a medieval chant melody, VENI REDEMPTOR GENTIUM.  Ambrose is careful to maintain an explicit Trinitarian theology throughout the hymn.  The second stanza expounds on Christ’s divinity, “Not by human flesh and blood, By the Spirit of our God, Was the Word of God made flesh—Woman’s Offspring pure and fresh.”  So, although he was born a human like us, he was without sin;  ie., “pure and fresh.”  This stanza seems to allude to John 1 in which Jesus is described as the “Word.”  Further, the fourth stanza emphasizes further Christ’s estrangement of the world as we sing, “From the Father forth He came and returneth to the same, Captive leading death and hell—High the song of triumph swell!”  This stanza captures the eternality of Christ;  existed before His earthly birth and He existed after his death and resurrection.  The final stanza is a doxology, affirming the unity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  All hymns from this time contain a final doxological stanza as a means to counter Arianism, a heresy which maintained that Christ was not truly divine and was merely another created being.

            With its didacticism, this hymn is a good example of what constitutes the Lutheran chorale, that unique body of hymnody that developed during the Lutheran reformation. Chorales were sung in the vernacular (ie., German in this case), were sung by the congregation (as opposed to the clergy or choir) and were highly doctrinal. After all, the late medieval times were characterized by great superstitions but very little doctrinal understanding (are twenty-first century people much different?) The chorale texts, whether composed new or reconstructions from the chant repertoire, as this hymn is, were often narrative, and conveyed doctrine almost as a story. One can see that in the narrative account of this hymn—the first stanza prays for the “savior of the nations” to come, the second begins recounting that “not by human flesh and blood. . . was the Word of God made flesh,” the third mentions the “maid found with child,” whose birth begins “His heroic course.” Continuing, the fifth stanza alludes to Christ’s death, for “into hell His road went down, back then to His throne and crown,” which action redeems humanity from our sin, as exemplified in the next stanza which is now directed as a prayer to the Son, “By Your mighty pow’r make whole all our ills of flesh and soul.” We return then to the “manger” which shines in “glory through the night.” This highly-compact doctrinal outlay is by no means unique—consider a similar chorale, “Salvation Unto Us Has Come” (555) which tells even more completely the story of Christ’s life, this time in the context of a framework of law and gospel.

            Sometimes, well-meaning church-folk defend jettisoning hymnody and chorales from the Divine Service, replacing them with little ditties which they contend are a “different style but the same substance.” Although there are some good modern hymns, many more lack the substance these early chorales do, which even a cursory reading will evidence. It is always good to give thanks for Ambrose, Augustine, Luther, and the great hymnody they left for us.



Posted by Benjamin Kolodziej with

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