Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Response to criticism of Mass text in "ancient languages"

We have all heard the argument that worship is not accessible unless the texts of the Mass are translated into one's vernacular. I received a note in which the writer claims that ALL texts, even and especially those attached to the melodies of the chant, ought to be rendered in a modern language (regardless of musical form) for the sake of "understanding" on the part of the worshiper.

Here is an excerpt from that correspondence:

The Criticism:

The reason it [The Mass] was in Latin/Greek/whatever is because that was the language that WAS understood at the time. It isn't now. There is no reason that those chants cannot be brought into modern languages.

The text drives the music, not the other way around, it is the words that are most important, and the music is merely the vehicle to bring that text across. If the music has to change a little bit here and there to accommodate a different language's syllabic and rhythmic structure, then two quarter notes where a half note was is no big deal. That's why instruments are forbidden in the Orthodox Church, because they cannot form words and pray.

Our music is "sung prayer", not entertainment, or a vehicle to feel all warm
and fuzzy and "mystical". "Leitourgia" means "the peoples' work." They cannot "work" and "pray" effectively if it isn't in the language they live in.

My response:

I understand your arguments, and know that the "Word" is the avenue for much of the faithful's understanding. But there is a mystical interplay between text and language when it comes to the Gregorian propers of the church, especially. This does not exist at all when taking a "modern" language and attaching it to some tune or other, even it be a Gregorian melody, just because it sounds pleasing or dramatic or whatever else seems to be called for. This interplay between Word and music is integral to the Mass - The same text, for example, is treated in different ways musically depending on its function in the Mass. For more, see this article by Dr. William Mahrt.

That the text of the Mass should always come first is a common myth. There is much to be said for awe and mystery in liturgy. Sadly, people in this day and age are poorly catechised, and have less than sufficient knowledge of what the Mass really is. This is not a problem that need necessarily be solved within the context of the liturgy itself. This requires further catechises - it is a mistake to try to package all of the Faith into that one "contact" hour per week. Attempts at doing so only further detract from the spiritualiy of that heavenly time and space that is the Mass. Genuine understanding is something that goes far beyond comprehension of text alone.

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