Sunday, November 25, 2007

So you want to dump hymns for propers...

A parish south of ours has decided to take a small step into the modern age by inaugurating a new youth Mass on Sunday afternoon, one that focuses on beauty and solemnity instead of hymns (whether jazzy, stodgy, or anything else). They want chant and they want propers.

But the priest is risk averse. He wants a musical program that is immediately viable and accessible and reproducible with the existing parish resources. This way, when we leave, they can do it again and again, and have a foundation for doing Christmas and onward.

Eventually, the priest wants Latin propers, even from the Graduale, but he also wants to actually get to that point, and he worries that giving the full presentation up front will alienate people and, in any case, we can't go there every week.

So what we need are English propers: The Introit, a Responsorial Psalm, Alleluia, the Offertory, and Communio.

This poses quite a challenge and an opportunity to think through what is the best transition mechanism for getting to stage one of reform. We can't just write the propers based on Psalm tones. They need in-print resources that they can use after we are gone.

To my mind, this comes down to a contest between By Flowing Waters (which is now online!! and the English Gradual (which is also online).

So we just sang through them to see which is more intuitive and solemn. By Flowing Waters begins its antiphon in mode IV. "To you O Lord, I lift up my soul; come and rescue me. Oh Lord, I trust in you."

The language itself is a problem. It is just not elevated.

Compare with the English Gradual: "Unto thee, O Lord, lift I up my soul; Oh my God, in thee have I trusted, let me not be confounded."

No contest here. Now, as I understand it, if you are using the propers texts for singing, one is obligated to turn to the Latin Graduale for the text, of which there is not actually any official translation in English, so one is under no obligation to use the texts in the Lectionary, which are there for spoken Masses and do not correspond with the Graduale in any case. In this case, why not use better language as we find in the English Gradual?

Next comes the musical consideration. The Flowing Waters version choose Mode IV, but by the 3rd phrase, we suddenly encounter a fa sharp which changes to a natural in the next phrase. There is no animal called a fa sharp in Mode IV, unless we are talking about introducing ficta into chant. I can't make any sense of it, and it gives the whole chant a feel of something not quite Roman. In fact, the piece has the feeling of something not quite rooted in anything authentic. Maybe this is a bad example but I find the piece just too...strange. I can't imagine how a congregation would be put at ease by it, much less be able to sing it.

Next we come to the English Gradual chant. It provides an English version of the authentic chant for Advent (Ad te levavi). It's rather difficult, and if you are going to go through the trouble, I don't quite see why one shouldn't just do the Latin. It's a good example of why English renderings of authentic chant seems pointless, to me in any case.

So given this context, we want to look at the Psalm tone version of the Introit. Here is where the English works. The composer chooses Mode 7. It is strict and clear and immediately--I mean immediately--singable. Anyone can look at it and sing it precisely right on the first viewing, not because it is dumbed down but because it connects with something already in our ear and something intuitive. It is orderly and coherent. It sounds like the Roman Rite.

Going through all the propers for the first Sunday of Advent, it is the same. The English Gradual is the winner all around.

This was an interesting experiment for me. I've long wanted to make use of By Flowing Waters. My colleague Arlene Oost-Zinner has doubted that it really does provide a nice half-way mark and might, in fact, be a big diversion. It's just too peculiar in its language and music, she says. Nor is it very easy to follow or understand. I'm beginning to think that she is right. In any case, we have a wonderful resource in the English Gradual. Why not use it?

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