Friday, 25 November 2011

English in the liturgy - again

This setting of Credo 3 illustrates the real difficulties of the task of adapting Gregorian chant to English texts. The music is written to emphasis the words that are most important. When translating into English, the word order is changed. If the same tune is applied, then the unimportant words are liable to occur at the points of emphasis. Thus in the very first line the word "one" has three notes for what in the Latin is "Deum". A further difficulty is that when the text is put into English, there are generally a few syllables more or less. This means either fitting in the extra ones, and either dropping the extra notes or adding them to one of the syllables.

This too is evident in the first line. The syllables in "Credo in unum Deum" are 2-1-2-2, that is seven syllables. "I believe in one God" has 1-2-1-1-1, six syllables. Whereas the original Latin version has a porrectus (three notes) on the word "God", the three-note porrectus, as mentioned above, ends up on "one" in the the English. Which is a bit strange though perhaps not so terrible.

Despite this difficulty, the overall effect is surprisingly successful but even so it ends up feeling uncomfortable. Whether the discomfort is just due to unfamiliarity or something more fundamental needs to be looked at.

The deficiences are more apparent in the English setting based on Credo 1.

This is less elaborate than Credo 3, and there is more scope for adapting the music to the text. But it has not happened. In the second line, "Patrem" is sung to a podatus (two notes). In English, this becomes "the Father", and logically, the podatus would be used for "Father" and an extra note inserted for "the". Instead, "the" gets the podatus, which is inappropriate as the definite article does not need the emphasis of two notes. This happens several times in this setting. The overall effect is clumsy to the point of absurdity.

The mistake seems to have been to allow the music to take precedence over the words. It might not have happened if whoever was responsible had kept to the correct Gregorian chant notation, when this problem of mis-matching would have been evident from the outset. This would also have made life easier for singers as it is easier to see how the neumes fit the words.

A further difficulty with Credo 1 is that it is full of traps, due to being in mode 4. Even an experienced choir can make mistakes if it is not careful.

The difficulties discussed here are not new. There is no reason why anyone should be struggling with this because there is a perfectly acceptable setting of the Creed together with all the other Mass settings, in the Book of Common Prayer 1550. This was produced by the Anglican John Merbecke, using the translations by Miles Coverdale. These texts are an accurate translation of the Latin and could have been re-issued, with the archaisms brought up to date, as an alternative to the ICEL translation. In fact, one has to ask why the bishops' committee took ten years on the task when most of the work had already been done? Had they simply authorised the Coverdale texts, the musical settings would have come ready-made as part of the package.

What a pity it is that ICEL missed this opportunity.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

English in the liturgy

With the new ICEL translations of the English liturgy have come new texts for the propers of the Mass: Introit, Gradual, Offertory and Communion. These actually form part of the readings and although for the last 40 years it has been the practice to replace them by hymns, this is unsatisfactory. One reason is that there is little tradition of hymn singing amongst Catholics in English-speaking countries. Another is that people have diverse preferences, so someone is bound to be upset by whatever has been chosen.

There are various settings for these new English translations, both of the Ordinaries and Propers. Mostly they are a direct adaptation of the Gregorian chant. Having tried to sing them, my impression is that they are clunky and awkward. It is like trying to walk on an uneven floor - one keeps getting tripped up. It does not help that they have been written out on a five line stave in modern notation.

It seems to me that the underlying problem is that the rhythms of the English language are so different from the rhythms of Latin. This is not a new insight, and the Anglicans solved it by developing a modified version of the chant known as Anglican chant. These are used with the sixteenth century translations by Miles Coverdale.

To what extent they could be used within the new English translations is questionable but the possibility is worth exploring... however, I am beginning to wonder if the Novus Ordo mass has much of a future in the longer term.