Tuesday, November 24, 2009

New Translation: Will the Arguments Hold?

Another "New Translation Tuesday" has rolled around. The weather is still raw and miserable here in the Midwest. This is the kind of weather that soaks deeply into your bones. But, it is Thanksgiving week, so the upcoming holiday helps buoy our spirits.

For those of you who have yet to visit the US Bishops' special web page on the new translation, you can find it here.

I've had a nagging question floating around in my brain over the past few weeks. This has to do with current musical settings of the Mass being sung in parishes across the country. I think, for instance, of David Haas' Mass of Light. The refrain for the Gloria is this: "Glory to God in the highest, Sing! Glory to God! Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth." For over twenty years (the copyright date for this Mass is 1988), Catholics who sing this setting have not been singing the words of the Gloria as found in the Church's liturgical books. In my own parish, there are some settings composed by a well-meaning musician that change the words of the Gloria and the Sanctus, so that they are more gender-inclusive. Texts like these have become a part of the fabric of the Catholic worship life in parishes. And they are not slavishly faithful to the texts in the current liturgical books. I guess my question here is this: If Catholics have been singing "variations" on the official texts for years, why will they feel obliged to sing new musical settings of the official texts that slavishly follow the newly translated texts word for word?

Now granted, publishers have been submitting settings to the bishops for review for years, and apparently, there has been some allowance for slight "variations" (a la Haas' Mass of Light). Obviously this will change with the new translation. But the fact remains that there are "composers" out there in parishes setting the texts of the Mass to their own music. I am reminded of this when I visit my parents' parish in Massachusetts. The parish music director wrote a musical setting of the Mass parts which, when I first heard them, sounded completely un-singable and were completely unmusical. Yet the parishioners sing them very well, like they are singing "Happy Birthday" at a family celebration. I wanted so much to go up to the music director and sit down and play and sing Steve Janco's Mass of Redemption, just so that person could hear a great musical setting.

How will Catholics in the pews react to the new translation? When told that these new texts are more faithful to the Latin original, will they care? Since many have not sung the official texts for years, why would they see the logic in the argument about fidelity to the Latin? We shall see. Please feel free to comment. You can do so by clicking on the comments button below and following the prompts from there.

Hope your Tuesday is going well.

Gotta sing. Gotta pray.


Chironomo said...

Well, that is the 128,000 dollar question...

If we are permitted to sing any text to any kind of music under the misguided but generally accepted guise of the alius cantus aptus, and the "Gloria" and "Sanctus" are merely thought of as "songs" for which we can substitute other songs if we feel so inclined, then why are these new texts any different from the "lyrics" to hymns and songs which are frequently and inexplicably changed at will by publishers, either to duck copyright fees or in the name of some kind of "gender-inclusivity"? The answer is that there is no difference if we remain with the current "anything goes" paradigm that has dominated liturgical music for more than a generation now. But my feeling is that this paradigm is quickly changing (actually, it already has changed but we're slow to catch up!), and it may take a few "smack-downs" of composers and publishers who stray from the approved texts for whatever reason they might consider necessary to get the message across.

And it may well be that the same could soon be true of ALL of the texts sung at Mass... consider for a moment that Liturgicam Authenticam mandates this in LA#108...and then consider how LA figures into the new translation and the way in which it treats liturgical texts... the result could be a very different musical landscape in a few short years, at least as far as texts are concerned.

Alan Hommerding said...

About 25 years ago, I did a strophic/metric version of the Gloria for my parish to sing to "Hymn to Joy" - it became a favorite, even of one of our bishops, who requested it for confirmation liturgies. Even a member of the Church's teaching magisterium was not aware that the Gloria text was not supposed to be altered. Similar situations are still around with an increasing awareness that psalm paraphrases aren't to be sung during Liturgy of the Word, any more than Gospel paraphrases are used, or prophet paraphrases or Apostle paraphrases. So we're still, big picture, in the post-conciliar/vernacular learning curve.

I've been taking the extra 6 cubic inches of air that it takes to say the new translation is more faithful to the inherited faith tradition of the Liturgy (vs. faithful to the Latin). To me that seems to be an expression of a larger goal, and one that people haven't seemed as puzzled by.

Chironomo said...


That is a wise way of phrasing it! The same can be said of other issues (Latin, chant, etc...)...that the purpose is to faithfully express our inherited traditions. This is a much more convincing argument than saying we need to sing the Ordinary in Latin because the Vatican II documents say so, or that chant should have a more prominent place in the liturgy because it is musically superior to popularly modeled music. Neither of those arguments is terribly convincing... much better to give positive reasons for progress.

I like your example of the Bishop "not knowing" that the Gloria text was not supposed to be altered. I am a bit more skeptical...I find more often among the clergy that they know such things full well, but they feel no obligation to abide by what they see as trivial or meaningless regulations.

I have often wondered (whimsically)why the practice of substituting passages from popular literature (Tom Clancy, Stephen King et al) or other original texts for the Scripture Readings didn't evolve in the same way that substituting alternate texts for the Antiphons and sung liturgical texts did (recall that actual popular songs -Blowin' In The Wind, If I Had A Hammer, etc...were sung in church for a number of years before they evolved into the current popular liturgy music). It makes just as much sense, if the point is to accomodate the desires of the people, or to encourage participation.

My impression is that people would listen much more closely to a few paragraphs from the current NYT Bestseller than they do to a Reading from the Book of James. Of course, the rebuttal would be "well sure...but WHAT are they listening to?" which is exactly the argument advocates of the Antiphons have been making for years now.

Scelata said...

"And they are not slavishly faithful to the texts in the current liturgical books."

As a married person, I've never understood the criticism implicit in that phrase you use, "slavishly faithful." (Another blogger frequently uses the phrase, or something similar, but ironically, I believe.)

I don't believe fidelity is "slavish," although it is clear from the sexual behavior of most adults that this runs contrary to the zeitgeist.

I would say, rather, that fidelity indicates respect.

It is clear that many popular composers and some successful publishers have no particular respect for the text of the Missal.

Whether they will acquire some is an open question.

"publishers have been submitting settings to the bishops for review for years, and apparently, there has been some allowance for slight 'variations'"

I would be surprised that bishops actually reviewed the settings, but you, being in the business, would know better than I.

"the new translation is more faithful to the inherited faith tradition of the Liturgy"

That is neatly put, and I think more expressive of the reality.

(Save the Liturgy, Save the World)