“To Jordan’s Water” – understanding the issues with a new hymnal

A paraliturgical hymn that was sung recently in many of our parishes, “To Jordan’s Water”, illustrates several of the issues we are facing with a new hymnal for the Byzantine Catholic Church.

The 1978 Levkulic pew book provided the text for 3 verses of this recent (and English-only) hymn for Theophany, written by Father Basil Kraynyak and sung to the tune of the Christmas hymn, Nebo i zeml’a. Here is the setting in the 2007 Byzantine Catholic Hymnal from the Metropolitan Cantor Institute. (This book provides musical settings for all the hymns in the back of the 1978 book.)

First let’s look at the text. The first verse states the “action” of the feast: Christ is to be baptized. The second unpacks the theological meaning: all three persons of the Trinity are manifested together for the first time. The third verse points to one of the “secondary figures” in the story, John the Forerunner, using an Eastern title for the Baptist; there is a special commemoration of him on the day after the feast, February 7.

There are  some minor grammatical issues.  The second verse contains a sentence fragment which could be easily corrected with a colon instead of a period. (Of course, you can’t hear punctuation, but to someone reading the text, it might make a slight improvement.

Three Persons in God, three Persons in God
are now revealed to us:
Father and Son, Father and Son,
Holy Spirit – one God.

The first and third verses rhyme (at least approximately), while the second definitely doesn’t. There are also a train of thoughts in the refrain that are more a series of images than any sort of clear statement:

Christ our Lord is baptized. Salvation is now realized.
Skies of heaven open, God the Father spoken,
O’er the Jordan a dove, Holy Spirit of love,
Revelation from above.

Like two of the three verses, the refrain rhymes repeatedly, and it looks rather like the rhymes are driving the text. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but something to watch out when editing musical settings.

Now let’s look at the music.  The verses and second half of the refrain are in 3/4 time, with two inserted measures in 4/4 time. This matches the music for Nebo i zeml’a (though Father Papp changes the half notes to a quarter note and quarter rest, and adds a few ornaments). We also need to consider how the text underlay works – that is, how the words line up with notes.

In the musical notation, dashed slurs show places where notes are sometimes joined together, and sometimes not. For example, in the first line, the text and notes always match up in the same way. But in the second line, the notes over “comes” are slurred together the first time, and then separately later on. This means that singers have to watch each time to see which way the music will go, and it also requires us to provide music for all the verses (since any given verse may use a different pattern for the text underlay).

So let’s look at just the  slurs.

In my experience singing and listening to others sing, the slurs over “John the Forerunner” are not a problem; congregations find these “by ear” easily enough.

But the last time I heard this hymn sung in church, when we got to “Christ comes to be baptized”, voices were all over the place, resulting in a muddle of sound. There were several different ways  one COULD sing it, each one addressing different concerns.

What do you do when the congregation’s members are all trying to preserve the melody, text, accepts, AND slurs? Well, we could rearrange “Christ comes to be baptized” to have one note per syllable, with a final slur on “-tized” – not the best of English accents. There are other solutions. But however is it done, we need to avoid confusion at this point where we address the heart of the feast.

Then in the second verse, “Holy Spirit, one God” is sung very differently from the other  two verses (and lacks their rhyme, as well). One option would be to change “Holy Spirit – one God” to “and Holy Spirit”, matching the other verses at the cost of  losing a theological statement. Or we could leave the music as it is and employ accent marks in the text to show where syllables go. Neither is a perfect solution.

To make any setting of To Jordan’s water really singable, we have to look at the English version of Nebo i zeml’a, namely Heaven and earth:

Here again, we have one verse that doesn’t rhyme, following by a second verse and a chorus that do. One could wish that the translator chose one path or the other.

Here we also see an optional ending slur,  on “Redeemer” – but there is less of a problem here since the rest of the line keeps the text underlay the same. There IS a bad accent on “MasTER of heaven and earth”, which can be avoided by proper singing (i.e. the cantor should not hit the D too hard).

Returning to “To Jordan’s Water”:

There is also a potential problem that involves the refrain. In  Heaven and Earth / Nebo i zeml’a, the refrain is sung in an excited rush, with singers catching breaths between phrases while keeping the rhythm. But the opening phrase of the refrain for “To Jordan’s Water” is simply wrong as written, with 7 eighth notes. Should it be:

which is hardest to sing (since you have to hold the first syllable an unexpectedly long time) but has the best accents, or

which is exactly the same pattern as “Salvation is begun” but has bad accents  on “Lord” and “baptized”,

or

which matches the Slavonic melisma on “rodilsja” and keeps the accents.

Unfortunately, when last I heard it sung, I heard ALL THREE versions simultaneously, from a mixed congregation that came from different parishes.

One final point: sometimes choirs work out their own arrangements of these hymns, which may involve changing rhythms, pausing for effect – or simply singing way too slowly (at least for my taste; your mileage may vary). But this can easily lead pauses to be inserted, changing

to become

which takes us even farther from Nebo i zeml’a, and introduces some additional uncertainty.

ALL of these are issues that ought to be addressed in a new hymnal setting of To Jordan’s water, and many other hymns (not all of them) have the same sorts of trouble spots.

I am NOT trying to make anyone unhappy with this hymn, but simply to point out that

  • in preparing a new edition of our hymns, we need to look at text and music, theology, and singability, and examine both original language and English settings
  • while changing as little as possible, there are some issues we HAVE to address
  • when using hymn melodies, we should strive for predictability, so that no one needs to be able to read music fluently to sing
  • even when we have well-written music, cantors need to be able to sing it as intended if everyone is to sing together.

I hope God has blessed your celebrating of Theophany, which ended yesterday!

1 thought on ““To Jordan’s Water” – understanding the issues with a new hymnal”

  1. In your analysis of “Nebo i Zeml’a”/ “To Jordan’s water”, you show one of the greatest issues with common hymnals; widespread variation. There are so many hymns that should be corrected, but will face challenges because each generation laments that the new translation/arrangement isn’t how they learned it.

    “Kol Slaven nash” in english is another that has been translated by Fr Ivan Mina/Jerry Jumba and does convey the original Slavonic/Ukrainian much better than some of the earlier English adaptations. Whether that translation will be used will likely be a political issue

    A common hymnal does serve as a solid place marker for future generations. There will always be protagonists and antagonists in any endeavour including this one, but we should keep focused.

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