Hymn of the Month: Hymns for December, January, and February

On Jordan's Bank the Baptist's Cry

"On Jordan's Bank the Baptist's Cry" is a sturdy and triumphant call to Advent worship. The dramatic text sums up the message of John the Baptist, encapsulating each of the important themes of Advent: announcement of grace, expectancy for the coming Messiah, and renewal in preparation for the coming of the King. Since it reflects themes common to all Advent worship, the hymn's use need not be limited to services that make overt reference to the ministry of John the Baptist.

The first two stanzas are directives, sung from one worshiper to another. The final three stanzas are prayers, offered by all the people to God. This change in the text's focus can be reflected by having the first two stanzas sung by a choir or soloist and the final three stanzas sung by the congregation.

The development of these five stanzas also parallels the form of many worship services. The first stanza calls God's people to give attention to the coming Christ. The second calls people to receive God's presence and God's cleansing from sin. The third is a profession of faith in Christ. The fourth is a prayer for God's continued grace in our lives and in our world—a response to God's redeeming Word. The fifth is a doxology of praise. Consider using the hymn as a unifying motif for your Advent worship, beginning each section of the worship service with a different stanza.

The tune PUER NOBIS is one of the oldest Protestant hymn tunes, first included in the famous Viae Cantiones collection of 1582 and later, in revised form, in Michael Preatorius' Musae Sioniae of 1609. It has been wed to several texts (the new Presbyterian Hymnal, for example, includes three), many with Christmas or Advent themes. The tune is also found in different forms; for example, one variation, PUER NOBIS NASOTUR, is set to the text "Unto Us a Boy Is Born."

PUER NOBIS works well both in a stately cathedral tempo that captures the weight of the Advent message and in a lilting medieval tempo that reflects the practice in the historical period of its origin. The former would feel the quarter note as the pulse, perhaps at J=100. Such a tempo would be appropriate when using the hymn as a solemn processional. The latter would give the pulse to the dotted half (two beats per measure) at a tempo up to o.=100 and could be accompanied lightly by recorders or flutes. The melody may also be sung in canon, using the accompaniment found in Ml Praise to You, Eternal God, by Donald Busarow (Augsburg).

Several fine arrangements of this hymn are available for organ, perhaps used appropriately as a prelude in a service where this is the opening hymn. See arrangements by Thomas Gieschen (in Volume 2 of The Concordia Hymn Prelude Series—Concordia 97-5536), Paul Manz (in Ten Chorale Preludes, Volume 2—Concordia 97-4656—now published by Morning Star), and by Healey Willan ("Chorale Prelude no. 1"—Oxford University Press).

Fine alternate harmonizations and a descant are available in Sir David Will-cocks's arrangement of PUER NOBIS to the text "Come, Thou Redeemer of the Earth" (in Carols for Choirs II—Oxford University Press). See also the introduction and free accompaniment settings by John Ferguson (Hymn Harmonizations, Book I, Ludwig Music, O-05).

The Song of Simeon

In addition to its psalm settings, the Genevan Psalter incorporates a few of the biblical canticles, including what may be its loveliest setting, the "Song of Simeon" (see also "The Canticles of Christmas," p. 18). The simple melodic line and the suspension-filled harmony that most often accompanies this melody convey well the peaceful and hopeful character of Simeon's song.

The text, often called NUNC DIMITTIS (the first two words of the Latin translation of the canticle), is a metrical setting of Simeon's response to the birth of 667 D NUNC DIMITTIS Christ (Luke 2:29-32). Its use of the Epiphany image of light and its focus on Christ as a blessing for the world make this canticle singularly well-suited for use during the Epiphany season.

The Song of Simeon has been very significant throughout the history of the church's worship. In the traditional service of Evening Prayer, or Evensong, Simeon's words are the standard response to the New Testament lesson. This historical use suggests how appropriate this canticle is as a response to the read or preached Word during any season of the church year.

Three organ settings of the melody by John De Korne are available (in Composers Workshop, Series II, from the Calvin College Music Department, Grand Rapids, MI). A fine pianistic accompaniment with descant for this canticle is printed in Songs of Rejoicing, (Selah Music Press, 1989).

Choral settings of the canticle range from the simple (see the setting by Claude Le Jeune above, with the melody in the tenor) to the complex (the Collegium Regale setting of the NUNC DIMITTIS by Charles Wood for double choir— ASC: A 23). Yet this canticle may well be presented most effectively by simply having a tenor soloist sing the first stanza without accompaniment, as if from Simeon's lips. Invite the congregation to join the testimony on the second stanza, with as little accompaniment as possible, but in full harmony.

This same Genevan tune has been wed to another text that is meaningful during Epiphany: "O Gladsome Light," a metrical setting of the ancient third-century hymn "Phos Hilaron." This text is especially appropriate for the opening of evening worship the very use to which it was put by the early church.

Rejoice in the Lord Always

"Rejoice in the Lord Always" is an exuberant directive, appropriate to many themes in the worship of the church. The text is based on Philippians 4:4 and highlights an important theme of that book. Paul's theology clearly roots this command to rejoice in the redeeming work of Christ and in the faithfulness of God. In worship this command can best be sung as a response to hearing of God's creating and redeeming works, perhaps after the declaration of pardon or the sermon.

This Bible song can easily be sung as a round, with each new part coming in at intervals of four measures. The Psalter Hymnal arrangement by Dale Grotenhuis makes it possible to sing the round in harmony as well, which is especially effective when sung without accompaniment. When instrumental accompaniment is used, it should be light and buoyant, encouraging rhythmic singing. The organ introduction (see p. 28) attempts to achieve this very result, imitating the fife-and-drum effect popular in French Noels and other march-like music. It was composed by Randall Engle, a recent graduate of Calvin Theological Seminary.

This song may also be used as a congregational antiphon for the reading of Scripture, especially the psalms. The congregation might sing the one-line antiphon either after each verse of the psalm or at the places indicated by the (R) in the text (see example of Psalm 126 below). The text of the psalm itself could either be read or sung. In order for the psalm to be sung directly from Scripture, it must be set to a "psalm tone," which is a brief chant melody. The psalm tone provides a way for a soloist or choir to sing the psalm directly from Scripture.

Psalm tones are constructed in pairs of phrases, following the structure of Hebrew poetry. For each line the syllables before the underlined word are sung to one tone in a speech-like rhythm; then, beginning with the underlined word, the singers move by syllables to the final note in the phrase. For example:

After every two verses, the (R) indicates that the refrain should be sung. To begin, the congregation could sing the entire song, possibly in a round.

As you work with this Bible song, you will discover that no matter how you use it, it is clearly a song that even the youngest children will enjoy. Consider having children lead the congregation in singing this Bible song in canon. Or consider using a group of children as the cantors in a responsorial psalm—they will likely be able to learn a given Psalm tone as quickly as anyone can!

Composer's Note: The pedal ostinato is intended to imitate the fife and drum effect popular in many French noels played at Christmas time. The pedal notes are to be played very quickly so that only the "chiff" sounds, giving a drum effect. A light 16' stop might also work. The fife and drum effect also suggests a sprightly marching rhythm. After this introduction, play the song on 8' and 2' flutes.

Upcoming Hymns of the Month

March: Were You There
April: Christ Jesus Lay in Death's Strong Bands
May: Jesus Shall Reign

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 25 © September 1992, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.