Our talented young music director [at Grace Church Episcopal, Newark – ed.] recently told me that I had done the work of adapting Gregorian proper chants to English words quite well, but that the work struck him as “unnecessary.” Since I have devoted decades to this work, I found his comment discouraging–all the more because his view is gaining currency in the Episcopal Church. The propers have always been sung to their proper melodies in only a few Episcopal churches. Until recently they were sung in English, but in most of the churches where they are sung, they are now being sung in Latin.
Aesthetic criteria justify the decision to sing the propers in Latin, inasmuch as the pure vowel sounds of Latin contribute to a beautiful vocal sound. So does concern about “authenticity.” The liturgical function of the proper chants, however, is to aid meditation upon scriptural texts. When the chants are sung in Latin, they can serve this function for only a few: those who either are able to comprehend liturgical Latin aurally or are very familiar with the Latin texts. If others are given printed translations, they can see what texts are being sung; but the music can “illuminate” the texts for them only by conveying its general mood–which chant does not always do. Latin chant can facilitate their prayer, just as instrumental music can; but the chant cannot fulfill its original function. I believe, therefore, that in parochial milieux vernacular propers deserve a permanent place.
I enjoy Latin liturgy, and I think that in particular places at particular times it has a place. I am not opposed to all use of Latin in vernacular liturgies. The texture of many polyphonic works makes their words aurally unintelligible in any case. Furthermore, the individual words of a text such as Gloria in excelsis are unimportant. The Gloria is basically an outburst of praise. The individual words of the proper chants, on the other hand, are significant. and if the chant is sung in the vernacular, the people CAN understand the words, and the chant can make these words–in the words of Winfred Douglas– “more intensely vital, more sincere, truer.”
In the past Roman Catholics generally dismissed vernacular chant out of hand. Only within the past few years have they entertained the possibility that the principles of chant composition can be applied to English texts. I wonder, however, whether their interest will endure.
Bruce E. Ford
from CMAA discussion forum