In a garden shady this holy lady
With reverent cadence and subtle psalm,
Like a black swan as death came on,
Poured out her song in perfect calm:
And by ocean’s margin this innocent virgin
Constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer,
And notes tremendous from her great engine
Thundered out on the Roman air.
Why would St. Cecilia construct an organ by the shore? We don’t think of that as a hospitable place for delicate instruments. But the earliest known pipe organ, the hydraulis, invented in the third century BC, ingeniously used water to maintain the pressure in its wind chest. This animation illustrates the mechanism:
and this reproduction instrument at Bath illustrates some of its potential for sound:
No wonder the Byzantine emperors used it in their court ceremonies. This German reconstruction sounds more refined:
In the old days, the first task of a young monk was mastering the Psalms. This meant memorization of all 150 Psalms.
If that sounds like a daunting task, it is nothing compared to what it would be like in our day. Which of the liturgical translations would be memorized?
Even worse would be any attempt to memorize hymns, the best of which have been altered by so many hands of varying capabilities that sometimes there is very little of the original left.
The memory is one of the greatest helps to the understanding. When faced with a theological question, it helps so much to bring various previously considered data to bear on the current issue. But the shifting sands of wordings and translations actively stifle memorization.
Theological helps like Scripture, hymnody, and antiphons are rarely store-able in the memory because they are inconsistently presented.
With Thanksgiving upon us, it is a good time to see what resources might be available to help us enter more deeply into the Catholic faith during the coming long winter evenings.
Some initiatives promoting Carmelite and Dominican spiritualities have appeared over the last few years. These two great traditions, the mystical and the systematic, are being retold for a new era, using social media.
The Washington Province Discalced Carmelites, through their printing house ICS Publications, have an ongoing discussion of the works of the Carmelite doctors, called Carmelcast, featuring young Carmelite friars.
In addition to topnotch commentary and news of events, Dominican Liturgy maintains hundreds of useful links on its sidebars.
Join St. Clement Parish in Ottawa for a Weekend of Sacred Music, November 22 – 23, 2019.
Featuring organist and chant director, David J. Hughes, the workshop begins at 7:30 pm on Friday, November 22 with Vespers, followed by an organ recital.
On Saturday, November 23, the parish will celebrate the Feast of St. Clement with a High Mass at 10:00 am, followed by a Chant Workshop beginning at 11:30 am. The workshop will culminate with 5:00 pm Vespers. Lunch is provided.
Pre-registration is required. Please call 613-281-3766 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to register. The registration cost of only $20/person includes lunch.
St. Clement Parish is located at 528 Old St. Patrick St., Ottawa.
Musicians looking for an educational event next February may like to consider a conference NPM is putting on February 10-12 in Washington, with Dr. Peter Latona, the director of music at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in D.C. The program includes four talks by Dr. Latona, two of them at the Basilica, and features the opportunity to observe a choir rehearsal on site. More information on the program, costs, and accommodations are in the event brochure.
For several years work has been underway to develop a new edition of the Liturgy of the Hours (LOTH) in English for use in the United States. The version currently in use dates from the mid-1970s and is overdue for revision, since the second post-conciliar Latin edition was issued 34 years ago. So the new edition is coming with numerous positive changes, many of them based on the 2001 document Liturgiam authenticam.
One part of the work has reached a milestone: the task of translating the office’s Latin hymns into English has been completed by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) and the results will be up for approval by the US bishops this month at their meeting.
These are great hymns, nearly 300 of them, full of theological significance and suited to the various feasts and daily observances, so they will be a true enrichment for the Liturgy of the Hours. They will replace the English-language hymns, songs, and poems that were used in the current edition, nearly all of them unrelated to the corresponding Latin texts.
As with most things in the world of church music, there is debate. Happily, the hymns are being put into English with an eye to preserving the original meter of the Latin hymns. This will make it so that the original melodies, simple Gregorian tunes, can be used with them. But in a move that inspires misgivings, the hymns are being rendered as unrhymed text.
Here’s an example:
Iesu, redémptor sæculi,
Verbum Patris altíssimi,
Lux lucis invisíbilis,
Custos tuórum pérvigil :
Tu fabricátor ómnium
Discrétor atque témporum,
Fessa labore córpora
Noctis quiéte récrea.
Qui frangis ima tártara,
Tu nos ab hoste líbera,
Ne váleat sedúcere
Tuo redémptos sánguine,
Ut, dum graváti córpore
Brevi manémus témpore,
Sic caro nostra dórmiat
Ut mens sopórem nésciat.
Iesu, tibi sit glória,
Qui morte victa prænites,
Cum Patre et almo Spíritu,
In sempitérna sæcula.
Of course, the decision to avoid rhyme in the English translations of these hymns was not made without reason. In some cases, obtaining a rhyme can force the translator to change conventional English word order. This is commonplace in hymnody and poetry, but, it is said, it could arguably make the text seem artificial for the many clergy who observe the daily office alone, who read it rather then singing it.
One must concede that that is a reason, but it reflects a sad state of affairs: that now, as in the liturgical reform of the 1960s, the celebration of the liturgy with music is treated as something good but secondary, as somewhat less important than the desire to celebrate the liturgy in merely spoken form.
As a consolation, I am told that the new unrhymed English hymns will not be mandatory: that it will be permitted to use other translations, including the classic rhyming translations by greats such as Neale and Winkworth, or more recently those from the nuns of St. Cecilia’s Abbey in Ryde or Stanbrook Abbey.
We only have 4 hymns that we know conclusively come from the pen of St. Ambrose, because the writings of his son St. Augustine attest to them by name. Many others bear his name but are not definitely Ambrosian in authorship.
However, I like to think that the beautiful tribute to an early virgin martyr, Agnes Beatae Virginis, usually attributed to St. Ambrose, is his. It has a certain clarity and declarative vigor that sounds like him. Here is my translation.
The blessed virgin Agnes flies
back to her home above the skies.
With love she gave her blood on earth
to gain a new celestial birth.
Mature enough to give her life,
though still too young to be a wife,
what joy she shows when death appears
that one would think: her bridegroom nears!
Her captors lead her to the fire
but she refuses their desire,
“For it is not such smold’ring brands
Christ’s virgins take into their hands.”
“This flaming fire of pagan rite
extinguishes all faith and light.
Then stab me here, so that the flood
may overcome this hearth in blood.”
Courageous underneath the blows,
her death a further witness shows,
for as she falls she bends her knee
and wraps her robes in modesty.
O Virgin-born, all praises be
to You throughout eternity.
and unto everlasting days
to Father and the Spirit, praise.