Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The new Missal translation: will we be able to speak it trippingly on the tongue?

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc'd it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.

I just realized I have been somewhat reluctant, for a variety of reasons, to explore the upcoming changes in the people's parts of the Mass in any depth beyond a quick glance. I think I was a bit in denial and somewhat in dread of what I might find and what it is going to mean to me as a cantor and member of the Assembly. So, tonight I bit the proverbial bullet and went to the USCCB website where they have posted the new and old parts side by side for comparison:

Of course, I knew about the "and with your spirit" response to the opening greeting and the change from "We believe" to "I believe" in the Creed, and some of the other particulars that have been argued and re-argued in the news and in Catholic blogs around the web.  Honestly, besides the substitution of the 4-syllable theologically specific and Latinate "consubstantial with the Father" for "one in being with the Father" (described by some commentators as an opportuntity for using the dictionary)  the change that concerns me most is the opening of the Gloria. (I will deal with the possible loss of the current Memorial Acclamation A in a separate post.).

Here is the current version of what is most often used as the refrain to the Gloria:   "Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth." Simply put, in terms of poetic meter this is mostly dactylic (2 long-short-short "feet") followed by a spondee (long-long)  and the same followed by a single beat. A such it is simple to set to triple meter (3/4 time or 6/8 time) music. Think of all the great refrain settings - and most are either in triple meter, or in 4/4 with triplets.

If I were a composer I would be tearing my hair out over the choppy new version:  "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will"  - the first line is the same as before, but then it segues into an anapestic (short-short-long) 2 trochaic (long-short)and another anapestic foot. Setting this and singing it are going to require some skill on the part of composers, musicians and assembly.  Triple, then double, then triple meter all in one line. If the Assembly parts are to be simple and singable, this will be a challenge.  We have lost the poetry in the translators' zeal to recover the literal meaning. And with it, our most beloved musical settings. Composers will be hard-pressed to squeeze all that text into the current tunes.

And so, my dear Hamlet, our lines will not trip easily off our tongues.  True, in time we will no doubt get used to this and it will take on its own character. The transition, however, may be as disruptive as the performance of the play within the play in Hamlet.


  1. You are seriously going to complain over a loss of poetic meter in something as watered down as the CURRENT (2nd) edition of the Roman Missal? How about the nearly complete abandonment of sacrificial theology?

  2. Well, as a church musician, I believe the choppy poetic meter will be a factor in setting the texts to music. Any translation should be singable - in settings besides chant. The unrealistic expectation that people who grew up with melodic Mass settings will abandon them in favor of chant is a sign that theologians and academics have lost touch with the American people. If a Mass setting is boring or non-memorable, no one in the pews will notice its theological exactitude. I believe they will just lack incentive to participate in the sung portions of the liturgy.

    For me the question is - is the more important value the participation of the Assembly or the theological precision? If the new translation were done well, we could have both singability and theological nuance. From what I can see by the lack of poetry that is sadly not the case.

  3. I was looking for resources on the new missal and came across your blog. In response to the question posed in your response to Anonymous, I would propose that theological precision is far more important than participation of the Assembly. Participation is important, but the Church believes as She prays. If our people are going to understand what they believe, they need to be praying it-- and singing it. Arius used to teach his heresy using song, and it was hugely successful. After the Second Vatican Council, we saw a decline in the theological precision of prayers and songs at Mass. We are suffering today from the breakdown in catechesis. Liturgy is the privelaged place for catechesis, and everything we do in the liturgy MUST reflect the riches of the Church's teaching.
    Thanks for the blog-- I look forward to visiting regularly!

  4. For me the question is - is the more important value the participation of the Assembly or the theological precision?

    ...just happened onto this blog just as the poster before me did...please tell me you are joking with that rhetorical query...the 'assembly' (oh the horrors of modernistic jargon) 'participates' by its very presence...nothing else is requisite; desireable, perhaps, but not requisite...I suggest you ask any Catholic regularly attending a TLM whether or not his or her understanding and experience of the Mass is diminished by the immense difficulties posed by Gregorian Chant...

  5. How about accepting that both the theological precision and the assembly participation are important. Saying the participation of the assembly isn't that crucial to the Mass is ridiculous. It's all about participation otherwise we're just spectators.

    This new translation may be more accurate and it is highly important it be correct, but as a composer from the standpoint of meter, flow, musicability, etc. it is a nightmare. How do you put 6 measures of text and additional add on lines into a line with 4 measures that already sounded great as it was? It will automatically make 10 years of my life and 4 Mass settings obsolete as there is no way to alter the music to accomodate the awkward, even clumsy wording of the new "Glory to God." Of course, I know it isn't about me, but no composer is going to think this is an easy task.

  6. Thank you - as a fellow musician, I can see you get my point. For you it is "10 years of your life and 4 Mass settings" - for parish musicians and assembly - it is years of attachment to beloved and familiar music which will suddenly be adapted to the new texts or simply trashed.

    I do think that it is difficult to measure the emotional impact these changes will have on the assembly's worship. And, if the ritual character of Catholic worship, with its "smells and bells" is not primarily about familiarity, emotional connection and the reptition of patterns that interact with the heart, I must be totally misunderstanding one of the primary factors that keeps people coming back to Mass.

    Let the purists and snobs pooh-pooh the importance of the participation of and connection with the Assembly, but I think musicians know that is integral to the experience of worship.