Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Singing the New Translation - Make New Friends, but Maybe Save the Old for Later

Last night, my parish music and liturgy director and I attended a session put on by GIA Music on their new Mass settings.  What I experienced  made me think differently about what this transition to the new translation might be like for the people in the pews when we begin to implement the changes.

As at most typical music sing-through sessions, those present (about 200 musicians) were asked to sight-read through  a variety of pieces - in this case, all were Mass parts. As we wait for the finalization of the new Mass texts, composers had been hard at work preparing new settings based on the provisional text promulgated for catechesis and to allow musicians to begin their work on new settings.

First, we sang through settings newly composed especially for the new translations. There were some decent possibilities, and a few "absolutely nots" among these, which was to be expected. In the case of our particular music ministry needs in a bilingual community, there seemed to be not enough bilingual possibilties combining the new English translation with the existing Spanish texts. Some settings seemed remarkably similar to one another; most were in triple meter and at least a few repeated the word "people" in order to balance out the musical line. Other settings had a moreunique character.

It was, however, when we turned to the re-worked existing Mass settings that things got strange. Some parts of these seemed a bit awkward, but at least one moment was totally disorienting and disconcerting... and it came at the point when I least expected it: during the newly re-worked Gloria in the Mass of Creation.

Now, in my original parish, we learned MOC around 1990 - and for the better part of the next 9 years I was in the parish, it was almost the only Mass setting we ever used. It was used in diocesan celebrations consistently, and when I moved on to the next parish, it was used often, though not exclusively. I may say I know the melody, soprano and alto parts to all the sections by heart, as well as the guitar chords. Pretty much you'd say it is "in my bones," I know it so very well.  So, last night, I thought as we turned to the page with the sturdy old warhorse setting. "OK, this one will be a piece of cake." Not!

While Marty Haugen's reworked refrain to the new text was not too different or difficult, as we turned to verse 1, the ensemble around the room suddenly fell apart, and chaos briefly became the order of the day. What I had not anticpated (nor, apparently had anyone else) was that this familiar setting, so much a partof Catholic life, would be nearly impossible - at a point where there was a great difference from the original. It was as if my brain was in some kind of "rut" that I could not shake myself out of to sight-read the relatively simple, but vastly different, passage. The experience shook me a bit, as it was powerful.  For a moment, the ground shifted under my feet.

During the earlier readings of the new or unfamiliar Mass settings, I, being a pretty fair sight-reader, had been holding my own... and frankly, the new, unfamiliar text was not particularly troublesome. When I reached verse 1 of the Haugen Gloria, however, the difference was painful.  For a split-second, my reaction to the new text was intensely negative. From the sound of what happened around the room, when pretty much every other musician seemed a bit flummoxed by the change, it was nearly universal.

So, when this gets to be "for real" and we have to change our Mass settings, I am wondering if at least at first, parishes ought to learn new Mass settings instead of trying to begin with the old ones in revised format. Maybe that would go easier with the people.  If a whole roomful of trained musicians stumbled, how can we not expect non-musicians, the ordinary people in the pews, to do even worse?  As a cantor, I know what happens when the people seem to feel a song is beyond them. They shut up and stop singing. Probably one of the worst things we can do in the early days of implementation of the new translation, is to create a moment of instant, perceivable negativity. If this happens, we will never get a second chance to make a good first impression!

1 comment:

  1. I read last year that Haugen was inclined to the MOC retire with the advent of the new translation, but it seems that GIA was petrified of losing this mint.

    I suspect GIA made a mistake here. MOC is emphatically metrical, and the new text is much less metrical, so reconciling MOC to the new text seemed to me to be a bit of a fool's errand.

    I would, frankly, avoid re-tooled works (other than works that relied on reciting tones, et cet.). They are much more likely to produce the result you experienced than new works are.