By Graeme Bird
My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine; For Thee all the follies of sin I resign
My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art Thou; If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now
—First stanza of the poem “My Jesus, I Love Thee,” by William Ralph Featherston, 1864
About 120 years ago A. J. Gordon wrote music for the well-known poem “My Jesus, I Love Thee.” It became a much-loved hymn, one we still sing today.
More recently, my love of jazz piano improvisation led me to “play around” with the hymn. The original version has a “catchy” melody, but lends itself to alteration, both melodically and harmonically.(listen here)
At the heart of jazz improvisation is creativity, the delight that arises from coming up with a “new” version of a piece of music on the spot. My new version (www.gordon.edu/bird) is unmistakably still “My Jesus, I Love Thee,” and yet it is being embellished, enhanced, re-created, in ways that reflect both the performer’s love of the original, and also his enjoyment in taking the original to new places, musically speaking. These “new places” might shock a traditional congregation. For a Christian musician playing in church (and perhaps for Christian artists in general), there can be a tension between playing for the Lord and playing for one’s own enjoyment. I used to struggle with leading and enhancing worship on the one hand, and on the other hand trying to play the greatest-sounding licks as I could.
Yet the two need not be contradictory. One’s ego is not inherently a bad thing, and of course it is God who gave us musical and other artistic talents in the first place. The key in a worship situation, I think, is to keep in mind Who it is that I am primarily playing for.
When I am alone, improvisation is a way to relax, to enjoy making music for its own sake, to just sit down and create something spontaneously—either a brand-new piece of music, or else a new version of a song I already know. Either way, it provides a way for me to express my God-given creativity. In a humble way I am imitating God’s own creativity.In fact, in the Old English poem Beowulf, lines 86–90, the singer is described as a “shaper” of his song, and a few lines down (106) God Himself is described as the “Shaper” of the world. What an evocative image of the singer/performer imitating his Creator!
If I really meditate on the words of this hymn while I am playing, I can express musically the joy and thankfulness I feel at the thought of loving and being loved by Jesus. This can lead to a feeling of exuberance that spills over into my playing, and I may go off into completely unexpected directions. This is more likely to happen when I am alone—it could be risky in a church service!
So, what does it mean to improvise “My Jesus, I Love Thee”? It means to take a great hymn, to internalize its melody (and if possible, its words), and then to explore it, run with it, use it as a springboard to jump off and express my creative energy and joy, to create something good enough to offer up to Him as a sacrifice of praise.
Associate Professor of Linguistics and Classics Graeme Bird has been described as “quiet, self-effacing, and perhaps a little mysterious.” A native New Zealander, he is Gordon’s resident polymath, an accomplished pianist and mathematician. He received the Junior Distinguished Faculty Award in 2011.