Monday, April 09, 2007

Who Botched Catholics Hymns and Why?

The Summer issue of Sacred Music will publish a lost essay by Adrian Fortescue, written in 1916, on Christian hymnody, and I just can't resist offering this wonderful little analysis of when Catholic hymns were botched, mainly because it provides further evidence that there is nothing new under the sun:

In the seventeenth century came the crushing blow which destroyed the beauty of all Breviary hymns. Pope Urban VIII (Maffeo Barbarini, 1623-1644) was a Humanist. In a fatal moment he saw that the hymns do not all conform to the rules of classical prosody. Attempts to reform them had been made before, but so far they had been spared. Urban VIII was destined to succeed in destroying them. He appointed four Jesuits to reform the hymns, so that they should no longer offend Renaissance ears. The four Jesuits were Famiano Strada, Tarquinio Galluzzi, Mathias Sarbiewski, Girolamo Petrucci. These four, in that faithful obedience to the Holy See which is the glory of their Society, with a patient care that one cannot help admiring, set to work to destroy every hymn in the office. They had no concept of the fact that many of these hymns were written in meter by accent; their lack of understanding those venerable types of Christian poetry is astounding. They could conceive no ideal but that of a school grammar of Augustan Latin. Wherever a line was not as Horace would have written it, it had to go. The period was hopelessly bad for any poetry; these pious Jesuits were true children of their time. So they embarked on that fatal reform whose effect was the ruin of our hymns. They slashed and tinkered, they re-wrote lines and altered words, they changed the sense and finally produced the poor imitations that we still have, in the place of the hymns our fathers sang for over a thousand years. Indeed their confidence in themselves is amazing. They were not ashamed to lay their hands on Sedulius, on Prudentius, on St. Ambrose himself.

Only in one or two cases does some sense of shame seem to have stopped their nefarious work. They left "Ave maris Stella," "lam lucis orto sidere," and St. Thomas Aquinas's hymns alone (they would have made pretty work of "Sacris solemniis"). In 1629 their mangled remnants were published. We still await the day when the Bull of publication will be revoked. But not everyone suffers from this textus emendatus of the hymns. The Benediclines, Carthusians, Dominicans, the Vatican and Lateran Basilicas, still use the old forms. When the new Vatican books were announced, the first thing for which everyone hoped was that we should be allowed again to sing the hymns as they were written by their authors.

No one who knows anything about the subject now doubts that that revision of "Urban VIII was a ghastly mistake, for which there is not one single word of any kind to be said. Now all the points which shocked him, as not being classical, are known and established as perfectly legitimate examples of recognized laws. It was as foolish a mistake to judge poetry of the fourth and following centuries by the rules of the Augustan age, as it would be to try to tinker prose written in one language, to make it conform with the grammar of another. There are cases where these seventeenth-century Jesuits did not even know the rules of their own grammar books.

He continues to describe the scandal that the damage was never entirely undone, and concludes: "The real badness of most of our popular hymns, endeared, unfortunately, to the people by association, surpasses anything that could otherwise be imagined. When our people have the courage to break resolutely with a bad tradition, there are unworked mines of religious poetry in the old hymns that we can use in translations. If we do, there will be an end of the present odd anomaly, that, whereas our liturgical hymns are the finest in the world, our popular ones are easily the worst."

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