Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Chant in the Vernacular (article from 1956)

There has been so much activity of late concerning chant in the vernacular, and there is no question of its driving energy: it is seen as an accessible toward the embrace of liturgical norms. In other words, it is a step toward the singing of propers and Gregorian chant and a step away from the near-universal practice of singing other songs. It is no secret that I’m an advocate of this position.

However, as anyone who has worked in English knows, there is no easy way to go from Latin to English, and we will all surely find it easier to go from Englishin to Latin since we will be moving from a language that has been artificially made to work in chant-like environment toward one where the language is native to the music an the music itself is the most sublime in human history.

I was interested to read a piece published in Caecilia in 1956 that pretty much gets it exactly right on the chant in English question. It is very much worth a read so that we are all aware of the limitations and essential instability of the English relative to the Latin. This sort of piece is very valuable to remind us that English is not an end point but a step toward something else.

In the end, he deals with the possibility that, regardless of the objections of musicians, vernacular chant will come about. What to do? He presents some considerations, all of which are beautifully fulfilled by the Simple English Propers posted on this site.

And do you not find it striking that this was published in a Catholic periodical in 1956, nearly ten years before English in the Mass received authorization?

by Father David Nicholson, D.S.B.

When the Liturgical Congress meets in Assisi next month (September) it is to be expected that prominent among the subjects for discussion will be the more extensive use of the vernacular in the Liturgy. The most significant problem, we may well expect, is that concerned with the use of languages other than Latin in select and special parts of the ceremonies of Holy Mother Church.

This point has been covered, and well covered, in countless books and periodicals. But there is an extension of the problem in the use, or misuse, of the already existing chant melodies to the new languages. To strike, then, at the heart of this problem, one question must be asked - has such a thing ever been done before? And the answer is "Yes"! We refer specifically to the attempts of our brethren in the Anglican Church to adapt Gregorian Chants to English texts.

It must be remembered that one of the first things done by the so-called "Reformers" in England under the successors of Henry VIII was to take the Latin language and translate it into English in order that the services of the Church could be understood and used by the faithful of the new sect. That efforts of the Anglican churchmen and the contemporary composers were successful is without doubt, for there came into use such classical compositions for unison music for the "Book of Common Prayer" as the Communion Service by John Merbecke.

It has been the tradition of the Anglican and Lutheran churches along with all the other groups who sprang up along the way to use simple music in the vernacular for the participation of the people. In doing this, the leaders of the Protestant churches were merely carrying on the lost tradition of the Catholic church - having the people sing music which was easy and in a language they understand.

The revival of Plainsong in the Anglican church, requiring the use of English rather than Latin words was marked by the work of THOMAS HELMORE, who published the Psalter Noted in 1849 and The Hymnal Noted in 1852. There have been since then many other works along this line in the Anglican fold.

A very practical illustration of the "Music of the Liturgy in English" was released by Columbia Recording Company using for the illustration of English Plainsong the students of the General Theological Seminary in New York City, and for the Anglican Chant and Merbecke a mixed choir under the direction of Harold W. Gilbert. As the matter for discussion in this article is the use of the Plainsong melodies with English words, I must concentrate· on this matter, and leave the other attempts at singing the Liturgy ·in English for another time.

When one first hears the recording in question one is profoundly impressed at the total effect. To the average Catholic it comes as a shock to hear the Gregorian Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Cum Jubilo), which he has heard and may have chanted all his life, presented and disguised in a new language. For those of us who came from the Anglican church into the true Catholic church - it only hearkens back to days when congregational participation on a high quality level was an everyday experience.

However, upon second and third hearings of this particular recording (especially if one is following the Plainsong with a Liber in hand) one begins to discover annoying discrepancies which were not evident at first. This annoyance is not caused by bias. Rather it is caused by the unhappy discovery that in order to adapt an English text to the already existing Plainsong melodies the rhythm was tampered with. This is actually unavoidable; for it must be remembered that the Plainsong, as we know and sing it now, is the Chant which was composed with the Latin word as the foundation and rhythmic model.

Gregorian chant is Latin Music. It was never composed for anything else, or any other language. In this chant, which is the official prayersong of the Catholic Church, there is a highly developed rhythm. All music without its special rhythm is like a body without its skeleton - a shapeless mass. To sing any type of music properly we must have a working knowledge of the rhythm peculiar to its specie. No less can be said of the Chant. To sing it properly we must pay very strict attention to the rhythm, for without it the graceful melodic line, and the meaning of the text becomes distorted.

The rhythm of Plainsong does not merely reside in the melody, nor does it have its only sense of rhythm in the text. It is the combination of the rhythms of the text and the melody which results in the extremely subtle and graceful beauty of this Latin music.

One may accuse me of being a die-hard perfectionist when it comes to the point of rhythm in Chant. But it must be remembered that after the Golden Age of Chant which culminated around the tenth Century, the decline of this superb music was due in no small part to a tampering with its very rhythm. This tampering was caused by restless attempts to distort and change the text, and to be too free with the time values of the notes themselves.

Due to this decline, caused by a variety of foreign factors, our beautiful .heritage was lost for centuries. It was only about a century and a quarter ago that definite steps were taken to revive this lost art.

That the official chant of the church is now at a high standard in many parts of the Catholic world is without question. And I sincerely think that it would be a very great mistake to try once again to distort our beautiful chant by trying to adapt it to a language whose lineage is far removed from its own.

In order to show a little more clearly what I mean by distortion of text, and consequently of rhythm, let me illustrate in small detail a typical example of the Gregorian Mass with English words.

I have in front of me a copy of the Missa de Angelis with the English words as edited by a very excellent musician and divine of the Anglican Church. To be sure, the Mass of the Angels is not good Chant, nor even authentic Plainsong, but it will suffice for the illustration. In the English edition the melody of the very first incise has been changed in order to make the adaptation. This truncating and cutting up of the melody occurs in numerous places all along the way. Then we have the words "Lord, have mercy upon us" placed as best could be done, but certainly loosely, under the melody. Now, the student of chant knows that in the Latin word the accent occurs on its special syllable in accordance with the rules of correct accentuation.

This necessary and correct placement of the accent does not occur in the adaptation of the English text. This is simply because our system of accentuation (weak as it is) does not abide by the same rules as the Latin language. It is only a matter of Philology - and natural - for the Latin language and the English language have their roots in different traditions and systems. It must be pointed out, in summation, that any honest attempt to adapt any language to the Melodies of the Chant will result in a distinct loss of the true rhythm - and we shall be no further than we were during the last decline of the Gregorian period. Let us avoid this by all means!

It is my personal hope that the Gregorian Chant be left intact with the language of its birth. Any attempt to adapt it to vernacular will, without a doubt, result in a greater understanding by the faithful of what is being sung; but it will, within the space of a short time, result in the complete misunderstanding of the pure rhythm of this treasure of music. And misunderstanding of the rhythm on the part of those who teach it will lead to its ultimate breakdown.

But if we are granted a more general use of the vernacular, what is to be done?

Without a doubt one of the best solutions could be the composing of entirely new music by our best composers, using the accepted text changes as granted to each country. Unison music, simple to sing, usable by the faithful ought to be first composed with the vernacular texts in order to give the faithful the first opportunity to sing it.

What kind of music could this new type be?

Our Holy Mother the Church has given us the guide when her spokesman Pius XII informed us, as did his predecessors, that the Gregorian Chant offers us the model for all church music of its holiness, its universality and its artistic worth.

The great classical composers of the Polyphonic ages wrote superb music patterned in great part on the chant. But it was not chant. Our contemporary composers, then, using the vernacular texts can follow the example set down by these great musicians and give to the faithful music which patterns itself after the chant. In this way we will leave inviolate, and for posterity, our great heritage of Latin chant, and can embark upon a new era of. music using as the foundations for this art those texts granted by the Holy See.
(Comment moderation is now in effect for this site.)