Sunday, December 30, 2012

Music in English at the Latin Mass

Most readers of this site are aware of the requirement that all music sung at a High Mass (1962) must be in Latin, unless it's before the Asperges or at the end of Mass. I am at peace with the idea of a sacred language----much like Hebrew was a sacred language used in the Temple but not on the street in the time of Christ. Latin has a place as the sacred language of Catholicism, and I'm not arguing against that.

All the same, it strikes me as regrettable that language limitations also take a large chunk of really good music off the table for the Latin Mass. Perhaps some day, when liturgical debates have settled down a bit and a compromise might seem fruitful, there could be a rule that all the Ordinary and Proper must be in Latin but that extra motets can be in any language. It's just a thought. The sermon can be in any language, as well as parts of the marriage ritual and various and sundry announcements about this week's bingo game.  What's the harm in a motet?

Until that occurs, though, one is left with only a few possibilities. I've resorted to two for the few motets in English that we do. A few times a year, instead of doing a hymn, we'll sing a motet or anthem in its place. Every Advent IV we end the Mass with Paul Manz's E'en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come. In Lent, we've done Lord for Thy Tender Mercy's Sake, written either by Richard Farrant or John Hilton, depending on who you believe. 

We're also lucky to have a Latinist in our schola who's given us another option: translating a composition from English into Latin. He has done this with Herbert Howells's motet Here is the Little Door. This took hours of preparation and likely strikes a lot of people as going way over the top, but I have to say it was worth the effort. We'll be singing it on Epiphany.

I can already hear the objections. What!? All that great Latin polyphony and you want to do English??? Well, for one thing, we only have four, possibly five, parts to work with. I think some people would be surprised at how much repertoire that takes away. For another thing, a lot of this English stuff is really good music, work that deserves to be heard. Much of it is modern but melodious and demonstrates that good accessible music can be had without pandering to the lowest common denominator of taste. Harold Friedell's Draw Us in the Spirit's Tether comes to mind.

But a lot of this music is Protestant!!! If Tallis and Byrd could pull their little balancing act with Queen Elizabeth, I think we can afford to relax a little. Yes, Cranmer wanted syllabic polyphony so that the words could be more easily understood---presumably motivated by Protestant evangelism---but how is this significantly different than similar demands made by the Council of Trent, which took issue with the florid polyphony of the likes of Josquin? I speak under correction, but I'm not sure stylistic differences between denominations are all they're cracked up to be. The congregational hymns that Lutherans sing are similar to the ones German Catholics sing. Amusingly, many who don't want Protestant music in church are perfectly ok with hymns that came from Protestant churches; they evidently don't know their origin. Then there was the school teacher who approached me one day after we sang Holy God, We Praise Thy Name and suggested I should be doing more Catholic music. A teachable moment, to be sure. At the same time, I suspect she would have missed the likely unintended American Baptist feel of To Jesus's Heart All Burning.