The 3Fs: Free, Frank, and Friendly

In an Italian communique about the most recent talks of the Council of Cardinals–currently the “gang of nine” closest advisers to the Holy Father–the Vatican spokesman suddenly broke into English to describe the talks as “free, frank, and friendly:” the 3Fs.

That’s something I’ve always liked about the atmosphere of the Church Music Association, that it is free, frank, and friendly. We can often add “funny” to the description, and sometimes we unfortunately have that artistic temperament thing that happens once in a while, but generally speaking the 3Fs describe our mutual dealings. This is not, in my experience, the norm for liturgists as a whole, who sometimes sadly communicate in ways that might be described as the 4Cs: Constrained, condemning, clannish, codespeaking, or even the 5Bs: Backbiting, boorish, baneful, baseless, and banal.

I suppose the joyful and free attitude among the CMAA comes mostly from drinking from deep wells full of rich beauty. It’s pretty hard to be grumpy and calculating in the midst of the sublime. Might as well just be happy.

For whatever reason, it is something to give thanks for.

Speaking of the 3Fs, I took a look yesterday at the current Magnificat over coffee with my after-morning-Mass friends, and was alternately pleased and disappointed by the two office hymn translations of mine in the issue. One is all about the 3Fs, and the 3Ss: Simple, sober, and smooth. Good one. The other is, like most English translations of Latin hymns, 3 other Ss: Stitled, stiff, and synthetic.

Here’s the free and friendly one, a translation of Dulci depromat carmine, a 15th c. hymn designated in our current Liber Hymnarius as the Office of Readings hymn for one virgin:

Let all the people join to raise
their sweetest songs of love and praise.
The solemn festal crowd combines
while in the heav’ns this virgin shines.

This virgin, resolute and strong,
stayed free for Christ her whole life long.
She spent her life in praise and prayer
and joins the saints in glory fair.

She conquered weak and fleshly sins,
with chastity the victory wins.
The flattery of earth she spurned
and to the steps of Christ she turned.

Through her, O Christ, watch where we go,
protecting us from every foe.
Correct our sins, save us from wrong,
and in the virtues make us strong.

O Jesus, Virgin-born, to you
be glory, as is ever due,
whom with the Father we adore
and loving Spirit evermore.

To my ears, this translation sounds like normal English singing. It doesn’t follow every hymn writing “rule” in a strict way. For example, it uses inversions of normal English word order more than some editors might like. But overall the effect is clear and simple, I think, and people could easily sing it with understanding.

Here’s the more embarrassing translation, of the 10th century hymn for one confessor, Iesu, corona celsior.

O Jesus Christ, most lofty Crown,
O Truth surpassing all renown,
you give rewards eternally
to those who serve you faithfully.

 O grant Your gathered Church, we pray,
through Him we celebrate today,
remission of their sinful stains
by breaking their enslaving chains.

He kept all vanity away
in virtue through his earthly day,
and with a zealous mind kept free
he served you most devotedly.

Most loving King, O Christ most blest,
This priest continually confessed,
and with a manly strength he trod
the host of enemies of God.

In clear and faithful strength he stayed,
and with fidelity he prayed,
and kept to purity and fast,
and gains the heav’nly feast at last.

To God the Father glory be,
and to His Son eternally
whom with the Spirit we adore
forever and forevermore.

While the original of this second hymn is probably theologically richer than that above, to my ears the translation falls a little flat. It’s a matter of tone, and especially of simplicity, that is missing, and as I read it, I keep thinking that it needs one more draft to have quite the smoothness, flexibility, and candor that makes a text ready to be sung.