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.

1 comment:

IanW said...

Sorry to comment so late on this post, but I have only just come upon your estimable site (I shall be back).

The missal propers were created to be spoken in the absence of the sung propers. I doesn't follow they shouldn't be sung - doing so can be a useful step towards the real thing. I do them to a psalm tone once a month when I help out with the music at a particular Mass, at which the choir aren't really into Gregorian propers or giving up the hymns. Psalm tones, like Anglican Chant formulae, more obviously give room for the particular qualities of the English Language. That said, I'd suggest another look at English Gregorian. I suspect that some of the ills you have encountered have been down to three things: the use of modern notation, which can slow its execution and work against the necessary legato; an unwillingness to sensitively adapt chant formulae to the English language; and the time it takes for people to learn how best to execute that adaptation.

I fear the ICEL missal chants suffer from the first two problems (though I wouldn't let the best be the enemy of the good), and that the progression of Adam Bartlet's work, first in the Simple English Propers and then in the Lumen Christi Missal, illustrate the third, and what can be achieved.