Wednesday, January 21, 2009

English Propers in the Usus Antiquior?

I'm like most liturgy geeks in that I find bibliophilic archeology impossible to resist, especially when the epoch in question in filled with mystery.

The 1960s are filled with mystery. Sometime within this decade, the conditions were alive for a wholesale revolution in all the forms of worship, doctrine, and morals that Catholics had known for their entire history. It was not a legislated revolution, for the legislation gives no support for such a thing. It encouraged gradual development in certain areas insofar as change was needed, even while warning against any unnecessary change.

I suppose many of us will never tire of trying to make sense of this whole period. For those who say, give it a rest, I can only suggest you move on and read something else.

There are two items on my list of artifacts for the day.

If you look at the 1965 edition of the old form of the Roman Rite (which is an odd bird sometimes called the "transitional Missal"), you find an odd juxtaposition in the text itself. The readings are in English. This seems reasonable in some way. I've personally felt that the biggest barrier to the popular expansion of the preconciliar Mass are the readings in Latin. I know and respect the contrary arguments—the Word read in the Sacred Tongue—and I would never been the one to push the button to translate them.

And yet if you are going to make a case for a revision in the old Mass, the readings are a very reasonable place to begin. So much of the structure of the music of old is based on the notion that the readings are being cognitively comprehended. In that case, you can make a case for the vernacular, and, though I could be persuaded otherwise, it seems that no fundamental violence is done to the liturgical structure by English readings.

Now we move into stranger areas. The ordinary of the Mass is presented in English. Why? Here are the parts of the Mass that people knew in Latin. Centuries of polyphony had been composed for the Latin. The Gregorian Mass parts were bound up with Latin. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church possessed little at all the way for music for the ordinary in English. On this basis alone, the idea of issuing a new Missal with no preparation for the musical side of things strikes me as irresponsible. You just have to wonder what they were thinking.

However, adding to the peculiarity, the 1965 Missal also prints the first phrases of the sung parts in Latin with notation. Why? It is hard to say. Surely the priest was not expected to sing the Latin incipit followed by a recitation of the English. And keep in mind that this Missal edition was issued only two years followed the Vatican Council's declaration that Gregorian chant would heretofore assume a much higher role at Mass than it typically had in practice. It would be given primacy of place.

Now to the oddity that strikes me most profoundly. While all of the celebrant's prayers are in Latin only, the propers of the Mass (Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory, Communion) are given in English only. The translation is very nice (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) and faithful to the Latin original.

Maybe this doesn't seem to be a radical step but consider: this step alone obliterated the whole of the Gregorian tradition. Treasures of the centuries were rendered unusable. The work of multitudes over centuries since the Apostolic age was rendered irrelevant for anyone but musicologists and historians. The propers are the core of the whole repertoire, and without notice or explanation or justification, they were suddenly blasted away into the ether.

Who can make sense of such a thing? It's not as if there were ready replacements for the Gregorian chant. You can't just take a chant melody and stick in a new language. The proper chants are bound up with the Latin. It takes vast amount of work to re-fit them. We are still in the process of doing this. And yet in 1965, suddenly there they were in the Missal: English propers.

There was no music written for them. Everyone was just expected to forget about the chant. Imagine the demoralization that set in for the Gregorian scholas of the time. It would be as if a new management of the Metropolitan Museum announced that everything but watercolor prints had to come down. This wouldn't be reform. It would amount to a ghastly demolition job.

Why? My own guess is that it was case—as described by Fr. Ruff in his new book on music—in which the liturgists prevailed over the musicians. The liturgists were famously ignorant on many matters of music. They couldn't understand the musicians and their relentless complaints and demands. Music is music, they figured, and if the old music doesn't work, just write new music (a paraphrase of Bugini's own attitude as revealed in his autobiography). They really hadn't understood the gravity of what they were doing.

The second artifact that I have in front of me is a charming little book called "The Propers of Masses for Sundays and Feasts" by Frank Gorton, as published by the Liturgical Press in Collegeville, Minnesota. It is a valiant effort. He took the texts of the propers in English from the new Missal and pointed them one by one so that they can be sung to Psalm tones. The introduction explains the Psalm tones in detail and shows how they work. (I would be glad to scan the book and put it up but it is still technically under copyright.)

The introduction says: "As this book was going to the printer, the Second Vatican Council act to allow the vernacular's entrance in the liturgy."

Hold it right there. The document in question says: "The vernacular language may be used in administering the sacraments and sacramentals."

Where did the authority come from to translate propers and impose them on the Mass? The document also leaves it to "competent territorial ecclesiastical authority" to make the final decision. Now, this opens up a can of worms. There was real potential for calamity in this phrase.

Sure enough, the intro to book continues: "The American hierarchy moved with promptness to bring us this privilege."

That sums it up. The remarkable thing is that this is actually a good book, at least an attempt to provide something approximating music for the propers. But consider the next step in this sad evolution of change. The new Mass appeared in 1970 with completely new propers. Not only was the calendar changed, which would have been confusing enough. Not only were the traditional translations tossed out in favor of pedestrian alternatives.

Even more bizarrely, the new Mass came with an alternative set up propers printed in the Missal. They are different from the official sung propers, shorter and not sweeter. That meant that all of the work done between 1965 and 1970 to provide English propers went straight to the dustbin of history.

The poor souls who tried to make some sense of the new age had wasted their time. Is it any wonder that after the new Mass appeared, musicians finally just threw up their hands? They were demoralized, first at the inadvertent scrapping of Gregorian everything and then by the astounding change from traditional propers to new fangled propers intended only for spoken Masses but printed in the Missal as if they were universally applicable.

I end on a hopeful note: this history is behind us. The port in this storm are the Gregorian propers, which are now universally available thanks to the wonderful charity of the Solesmes Monastery, which has made available the Gregorian Missal through the servers of the Church Music Association of America.

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