Composers supporting each other

In the last week of January, well over 30 English- and Spanish-speaking composers, mostly from North America, gathered for the St Louis Liturgical Composers Forum. These annual get-togethers, founded by Jesuit composer John Foley in 1998 and supported by the St Louis Centre for Liturgy, usually represent a broad cross-section of backgrounds and compositional styles, and this one was no exception. The purpose of the meeting is to take time out from parish and other commitments, to pray, to be nourished by substantial input and discussion, to relax and to network. The group has grown closer over the years, as composers have got to know each other better. They gather at the Mercy Center in St Louis on Monday afternoon, and leave after lunch on the Thursday.

This year’s input was excellently facilitated by Fr Paul Turner of Kansas City, Missouri, well known for his writings and lectures. The composers were able to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the upcoming new Order of Mass texts, and to look at areas for future creativity with regard to the new Missal generally. It is quite clear that some of the infelicities and problems with these texts could have been avoided if liturgist-composers had been more closely involved in the refining process.

To give just one example:

Glory to God in the highest,

and on earth peace to people of good will.

The two long accents “earth peace” following one another are awkward to deal with rhythmically. It would have been perfectly possible for this to be rendered as “and peace on earth to people of good will”, since the translators have felt free to deviate from the Latin word-order elsewhere (e.g. the second line of the Sanctus, where following the Latin would have given “Full are the heavens and earth of your glory”, rather than the actual “Heaven and earth are full of your glory”).

A panel discussion with representatives of the “Big Three” publishers ─ OCP, GIA and WLP ─ proved interesting in the ongoing task of trying to discern where liturgical music publishing and recording is going in the near future, particularly in the light of terrifyingly rapid developments in cyberworld and the media.

An update was also given on progress with a significant new book on liturgy and music containing some thirty chapters being written by members of the Forum. It is hoped that this will see the light of day from Liturgical Press in the next 12 months or so.

One popular feature of the meeting is a “blind tasting” of music submitted by composers. The pieces are sung through and critiqued (charitably!) in plenary session, and it is noticeable how the standard of submissions has improved over the years. Fresh ideas and new approaches benefit everyone present.

The Forum members have a generally very positive attitude to their craft, and the annual gathering is not only an important calendar event but a wellspring for refreshment and a stimulus to work during the following year. Conferences are not cheap these days, but many of the composers pay their own way in order to attend, which says a lot about how valuable they consider this annual experience to be.


  1. The two long accents “earth peace” following one another are awkward to deal with rhythmically

    Stuff and nonsense, Paul, as Merbecke demonstrated four hundred and fifty years ago. I fear I detect in your reaction to the new translation a love of the current mistranslation’s doggerel-rhythms, and a misplaced conservatism that goes back no further than the novelty of your youth.

    1. My dear chap, I’m sorry if I gave offence. My comments weren’t thoughtless spleen, however. I’m happy to reiterate that it doesn’t make sense to object to the new translation of the Gloria on the grounds that the opening is difficult to set. The problem is that composers have become used to the rumpety-tumpety rhythmic regularity of the current ditty-like translation, whether they sense that in 6:

      eee eee | q. he | eee | q(ee!)*

      h = half note/minim,
      q = quarter note/crotchet,
      e = eighth note/quaver
      s = sixteenth note/semi-quaver
      . = .

      or in 4:

      q ee q ee | h q q | q ee ee q | q(qq!)*

      *(boom, boom!)

      A similar problem occurs with the opening of the existing Sanctus translation, which all too readily lends itself to:

      qe qe qe q. | qe qe q


      qq qq | q.e h | qq eeq | h

      A seasoned pro like yourself, however, should be perfectly capable of casting aside this dependence on tonic meter, to work with the supple irregularity of the new translation; and rather than waste precious time reinforcing others’ bad habits, spend some demonstrating, through example and teaching, how to use the new translation as an opportunity for improvement.

      It may be that, like Fr. Ruff, you accept the need to improve on parts of the current translation, but aren’t happy with some elements of the new – in which case, I’m sorry to have misjudged your position, though in that case your choice of one of the more risible efforts of the old translation on which to make your stand is a poor one.

      I have supplemented my own sense of ICEL’s recent efforts by reading others’ comments and analysis and through discussion with other musicians, and while some of what I’ve read and heard has been thought-provoking, I can’t avoid the smell of reaction in the air – a determination to hold hard-won ground against Rome, despite the clear literary and theological problems with the current translation. All this is perfectly understandable as a first response, but one would have hoped that a little reflection would have granted the need for the vernacular text to move on from the curate’s egg of 1973. Instead, we’ve had patronising complaints from senior clergy who ought to have known better about the ability of ‘John and Mary Catholic’ to understand some of the harder words and concepts. It would have been far better to engage with ICEL, to put the practical experience of the last forty years to use. This represented a marvellous opportunity for musicians, who (ought to) have a particular sensitivity to words and metre. Sadly, that voice is lost when it gets caught up in the parochial anxieties that still bedevil the post-Conciliar church.

      1. oops -I’ve spotted a typo in the first rhythmic example, which should have read:

        eee eee | q. qe | eee | q(ee!)*

        It would have been easier if I could have uploaded the dots!

  2. The current ICEL translation got panned by our Worship magazine the day it appeared. I honestly don’t know anyone who prefers the current translation to the proposed ICEL sacramentary which got rejected in the late 90s. If I were guessing wildly about someone’s position, I don’t think I would accuse them of loving the current translation. That being said, I personally think that the rhythm of the current ICET (not ICEL) Gloria text is good.

  3. Ian Williams :

    The two long accents “earth peace” following one another are awkward to deal with rhythmically
    Stuff and nonsense, Paul, as Merbecke demonstrated four hundred and fifty years ago. I fear I detect in your reaction to the new translation a love of the current mistranslation’s doggerel-rhythms, and a misplaced conservatism that goes back no further than the novelty of your youth.

    Ian, I know that my friend Paul Inwood can hold his own in any conversation but if I may repeat myself on another pages of this blog and ask you to moderate your tone:

    I am an active participant in many internet forums on liturgy and liturgical music. Sometimes the tone of some contributors really dismays me: anger, ridicule, derision, calumny, detraction—a catalog of the sins against verbal justice that Saint Thomas Aquinas decries in Questions 72, 73, and 74 of the 2a2ae of the Summa Theologica. ALL of us have been hurt by some of what has happened in the past forty-five years. Can’t we offer that suffering to fill up “what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24)?

    As a student of the writings of C. S. Lewis, I am sure that this unjust tone is the work of Screwtape. The enemy of our human nature sees how the Eucharist would make us one in mind and heart and so he works overtime to attack us through our tenderest sensibilities, to music and to language and to beauty. Saint Michael and all angels, protect us . . .

    1. Paul,

      I’ve seen and valued you comments elsewhere, so let me say that I hope the expansion of my argument in my response to the other Paul persuades you that your laudable response to criticism of a friend was perhaps an over-reaction that mistook robust criticism for unnecessary invective.

  4. “A panel discussion with representatives of the “Big Three” publishers ─ OCP, GIA and WLP ─ proved interesting in the ongoing task of trying to discern where liturgical music publishing and recording is going in the near future, particularly in the light of terrifyingly rapid developments in cyberworld and the media.”

    Paul, are you at liberty to comment anymore on the contents of this conversation? The ICEL concession a few years ago in allowing its texts to be shared online freely was such a breakthrough–it is not something that, say for example, GIA has yet done for the forthcoming Revised Grail Psalter. The reality, as we all know, is that anyone who writes liturgical music can share their work freely, instantly and effortlessly online now in a way that has never been possible before. How are the publishers going to compete with this? Can they compete with it? Will they try to make attempts to stamp out this growing fire? (These questions are all rhetorical, of course, but they are questions that I, as an independent composer of liturgical music am very interested in!)

  5. Fr. Ruff:

    Wonder website, by the way. I was wondering about your comments when you refer to the “current” translation. Are you speaking of the 1973 ICEL translation or the 2008 one just approved? Then in saying that most people approve of the rejected 1998 translation, does the mean over the 1973 translation or over the current 2008 one?

    Looking at the 1998 rejected translation, the only change I noticed in the Gloria was, “Peace to his people on earth” became, “Peace to God’s people on earth.”

  6. The burgeoning importance of Creative Commons licenses needs to be addressed sooner rather than later in the matter of liturgical texts; at some point in the next few years, I expect Rome may well decree that texts be more freely available for liturgical use, and anyone who is assuming the model that obtained in the past will necessarily obtain in the future for much longer may be in for a surprise.

  7. In response to Ian Williams’s further remarks:

    He seems to think that I have stated something of my own position on the existing translations. I have not. I did not even mention them. I simply reported what a gathering of composers felt about one new text, not what they felt about any of the existing translations.

    I’m all for robust comments, but for heaven’s sake read what was originally said, not use it as a springboard for a personal rant!

    I did report that the composers were disappointed that they had not been more involved in whatever consultation process took place (apart from one brief meeting with Fr Bruce Harbert several years ago). Ian Williams talks about engaging with ICEL, but the fact is that ICEL has itself not appeared willing to engage. However, under its new general secretary, things look far more positive in this respect, I’m pleased to say.

    If Ian Williams wants to know what I myself feel about the new translations, my detailed answer will depend on whether he is talking about just the Order of Mass or the entire Missal. But some basics which apply regardless would be:

    (a) there are many improvements in the translation qua translation;
    (b) however, there are still many infelicities in the use of language: what we will get will not be totally satisfactory, alas;
    (c) these infelicities could have been fixed, given the inconsistency of approach manifest in the translation as a whole (as my original post pointed out), so one may regret the wasted opportunity.

    My information is that some of the problems have been caused not by ICEL but by Vox Clara, who have unilaterally taken decisions to modify or rewrite texts that had previously been agreed upon both by conferences of bishops and by ICEL itself. This makes it even more difficult, since any consultation process is effectively sidelined by a small group of people who are not accountable to anyone.

    (d) The 1998 ICEL translation which was booted out of court for largely political reasons by the Congregation actually incorporated many of the improvements alluded to in (a), along with a much superior use of language. It should have been used as a basis for the new translation.


    As far as Mr Williams’s disparaging remarks on rumty-tum rhythms are concerned, the only comment I would make is that ICET designed their texts to be easily set to music, which explains why they are rhythmically easier to cope with than those which did not include this parameter in the work done.

    1. Paul,

      Before you accuse someone at length of ranting about something you haven’t said you really ought to follow your own advice and read their comments. That way you’ll avoid the charge of setting up an Aunt Sally. I haven’t commented on your wider position on the existing translations, as I don’t know what it is, nor have claimed to do so.

      Rather, I have focused on the strange case of your defence of the existing Gloria translation, which is widely acknowledged to be one of the less successful elements of the 1973 translation, and suggested that this is symptomatic of a certain kind of opposition to ICEL’s efforts.

      Putting aside issues of theological dispute and the kind of consultation that’s desirable, much of that opposition is characterised by three problems: literary insensitivity; a misplaced populism that prioritises simplicity over profundity; and fear of change. On the face of it, the first is evident in your inability to register the ridiculous in the metre-scheme of the current Gloria translation. I’m afraid this not only indicates a sense of humour failure; it also weakens one’s confidence in your judgement of the “many infelicities in the use of language” you claim to detect in the wider translation.

      Now, I did not expect a liturgical composer of your experience to exhibit such a failing, so looked for a mitigating explanation. I began by assuming it to be the third problem – fear of change – but saw from your further comments that it might in fact be the second: populism. How else to explain your defence of the risible on the grounds that it’s easy to set? Liturgical music should be the handmaid of literary and liturgical sensibility. Simplicity for those who wish to compose need not and should not be a determining factor in the character of a liturgical translation. Any composer worth his or her salt will be capable of meeting the technical demands of irregular meter. If some find this difficult, they should be encouraged to work at it, to throw away unsatisfactory attempts, maybe even improve their technical and compositional skills through education or coaching. For the translators to determine the character of the translation in order to make life easier for them would be a major disservice to the liturgy and the faithful (not least to the aspiring composers themselves). The argument is so weak as to leave me wondering why an evidently reasonable man would make it. A possible explanation lies in the observation that this misplaced – indeed, patronising – populism is a product of the era that produced the last translation: conservatism might, in fact, play a part in its continuing promotion by those who once experienced the excitement of it as a new idea.

      Having responded to your comments, I would like to end mine on a more positive note. The Church in the English speaking world is going through an experience the Church of England began in the 16th century. Other fundamental changes aside, it had to develop a new liturgical language and music. It did so very successfully, but the operative word is “develop”. The sacral English of the Prayer Books did not spring, fully-formed, from Cranmer’s brow. It was a living tradition, the product of years of development and revision, from before the Reformation to the twentieth century. Unlike the post-Reformation Anglicans, we made life more difficult for ourselves by rejecting the existing tradition of sacral English with which we were familiar. That should not, however, stop us taking heart from the Anglican experience, recognising the increased use of the vernacular as a process, in which early endeavours are likely to be superseded by improvements that benefit from the perspective of time and experience. I submit that ICEL’s new Gloria and Sanctus translations are encouraging steps on that journey.

  8. The CMAA website a few months back was made to take down FREE editions of the Ordinary for the new translations because of the ICEL copyright idiocy. I saw recently that WLP was selling editions of Mass settings. Does it seem to anyone else that these three “big companies” are getting special treatment on this?

  9. Christopher is right: there are many copyright problems.

    One example would be the new ICEL Sanctus, which is only one word different from the existing ICET Sanctus, which is made available free of charge on condition that a copyright acknowledgement is made. Publishers are already saying that they will not pay royalties to ICEL for a text which is already effectively in the public domain.

    This of course is not the first time by any manner of means that ICEL has “pinched” existing texts, altered one word, and then claimed copyright in them. I can quote you examples going back to 1970. However, people are becoming increasingly savvy to copyright law and won’t let ICEL get away with it any longer.

    With regard to WLP, the Big Three publishers are certainly not selling settings of the new texts yet. They cannot get copyright clearance to print them, apart from anything else. It is possible that some online minor imprints are doing this, though I have not seen any yet.

    1. “This of course is not the first time by any manner of means that ICEL has “pinched” existing texts, altered one word, and then claimed copyright in them. I can quote you examples going back to 1970. However, people are becoming increasingly savvy to copyright law and won’t let ICEL get away with it any longer.”

      I surely hope that the “Big Three” will also follow suit with this axiom. The very same practice seems to be GIA’s bread and butter. It seems that they effectively sidestepped copyright restriction on the current Ordinary of the Mass by cleverly changing just one word or two in, for example, in the Mass of Creation: “…God of power, God of might”, “Jesus, Lamb of God…”, etc. GIA and OCP both change words in traditional hymns and claim copyright. If ICEL is being called to accountability so should the publishers!

  10. First, thanks to Paul Inwood for reporting so thoroughly on the St. Louis forum and discussions there.
    What these (published) composers bemoan about lacking felicitous translations into English is beside the point, in my opinion, for three reasons.

    First, the “old/new wineskin” argument. New wording really needs new packaging. I have heard that some favorite mass music is going to be adapted to the recently approved wording. But such retrofitting has already proven very inadequate for hymns in general, with very few pieces that survive the crossing intact and proud. To take one example: Singing the modified lyrics about God after removing masculine attributes leaves us with a patched up work sounding inferior to the original. I refer to the hymn, of course, not to the apophatic language. Now if these individuals have published successfully in the past, adapting themselves to all kinds of intractable texts, the slight changes to the mass Ordinary being imposed on English-speakers should present very little challenge.

    Next, the “primacy of the word” argument. This is not something invented the other day by restorationists. It has always characterized ritual in every religion, and seems to have been a cornerstone of Catholic worship from the beginning. We are to adapt notes and rhythm to enhance the word, not the other way around. One of Fr. Ruff’s key points in his book had to do with the genius of medieval composers in achieving such a marriage in which the music enhanced the Latin text. I said Latin by design because I am not convinced that a simple imposition of Latin notes and rhythms onto the translated vernacular texts will succeed. The jury may be out on this, but at least to me such chants always sound cold, forced and distant: someone else’s prayer.

    Finally, the “modernity” argument. Aren’t we kidding ourselves that there is a perfect translation of the ancient languages that will speak to our inmost parts and remind us of the holiness of the living God? Just take the phrase that we now sing: “Lord God, heavenly king, almighty God and Father.” In just eight words (seven in Latin) we evoke the patriarchal, Ptolemaic and divine right of kings world views that no longer rule our everyday lives outside of church. Aren’t we just putting off the day of reckoning by continuing to translate, literally or dynamically, what is becoming ever more untranslatable with the passage of time?

  11. Rather, I have focused on the strange case of your defence of the existing Gloria translation, which is widely acknowledged to be one of the less successful elements of the 1973 translation, and suggested that this is symptomatic of a certain kind of opposition to ICEL’s efforts.

    Ian Williams, please read the original post again.

    (a) It’s not my defence. I was reporting what a number of composers felt. If you can’t cope with that, this is your problem, not mine.

    (b) Nothing was said about the 1973 translation (which is actually the 1971 ICET translation, adopted by ICEL in 1973). No defence was made of that translation. The comment was about the rhythmic characteristics of the new translation. No comparison with the current translation was made. You are the one who is imputing this.

    (c) It’s not symptomatic of anything, merely stating that the upcoming translation of this particular text is unsatisfactory, when it need not have been. The fact that this applies mutatis mutandis to many other of the new ICEL texts was not stated. Once again, you are reading things into a statement of composers’ reactions which is simply not there.

    And when you’ve finished re-reading the original post, kindly desist both from attributing attitudes to the bearer of a simple news item which are nowhere stated in the post and from attacking those supposed attitudes.

    I hope this is sufficiently clear.

    1. Paul,

      It’s not my defence. I was reporting what a number of composers felt

      This claim to have simply made a value-free report of others’ difficulties doesn’t stand examination of what you wrote. You explicitly indicated your disapproval of ‘and on earth peace’ by referring to it as an ‘infelicity’. In doing so, you made clear your agreement with the composers.

      On the other hand, you pointedly failed to comment on those infelicitous rhythmic characteristics of the old translation which, I argued, might explain the composers’ current difficulties, but were happy to observe that:

      ICET designed their texts to be easily set to music, which explains why they are rhythmically easier to cope with than those which did not include this parameter in the work done.

      I’m afraid this still leaves one to wonder why you make such a fuss about ‘and on earth peace’ as opposed to ‘and peace on earth’. It’s not even that you strain to remove ICEL’s mote when you’ve found reason to excuse ICET’s beam: there is no mote to remove. Anglican composers, from Merbecke on, frequently and felicitously set ‘and on earth peace’. In fact, the way this wording draws out and emphasises ‘peace’ is particularly satisfying. You would do well to consider the literature, and then try out a few ideas yourself before you next comment on this element of the new translation. You never know – you may even find yourself thanking the Lord for this manner of deliverance from the horror of the old.

  12. Anglican composers, from Merbecke on, frequently and felicitously set

    Is that the same Merbecke that Anglican musicians across the globe find both extremely boring and not well-crafted? I fear it may be.

    In any case, with regard to the 1971 translation of the Gloria: I am accused of ‘pointedly failing’ to comment on something that Ian Williams happens to dislike. That was not the purpose of the original post (which concerned the imminent translation, not any of those translations existing or in the past), so I did not comment on it, and will not comment on it in this thread.

    Pillorying somebody because they did not comment on something that you happen to dislike is not something you can get away with in serious adult scholarly debate. If Mr Williams is unable to understand that one may comment on one topic without having to comment on another, then I am sorry for him. I suggest that he goes away to learn how to come to grips with issues that are actually raised, and comes back later. I’m sorry, but this sort of behaviour is getting extremely tiresome, not to say childish.

  13. [irony]My dear boy, I’m simply reporting your own words. No need to get personal about this.[/irony]

    You really ought to stop digging, Paul – though I am pleased to see you’ve moved on from the clumsy disingenuity of your claim to have been simply a disinterested reporter of the composers gathered at the St. Louis Jesuit Centre. Given your own words (see my last comment), that always was going to be a difficult claim to sustain.

    You haven’t addressed my observations on the ICEL text you criticised. That’s significant, because it implies you’re not, after all, very interested in the text as such, other than as a means to indulge in ecclesiastical politics. It’s also a shame, because one would have hoped to have benefited from a detailed, open-minded analysis of the literary and compositional issues, not least in the context of the previous translation and what the changes mean for composers and singers used to working with the very different demands of that text. That would have been of considerable interest, given your background as one who has so assiduously worked with the old translation, as professional liturgist, music director and composer.

    It is in this context that one must question your ostensible reluctance to compare the old and new translations. One cannot adequately understand the difficulties some composers are apparently having making the transition without an understanding of the metrical character of the old and the constraints it placed on them. To be fair, your comments, which barely disguise an evident regard for that character, and distaste for criticism of it, do suggest you recognise the significance of the change.

    Finally, I have to observe that your comments on Marbecke only serve to underscore the paucity of context and analysis in what you have written here. Marbecke gave himself the task of setting a Gloria translation whose rhythms have more in common with ICEL’s than ICET’s, according to the principal of the primacy of the text. The result has largely stood the test of time and developments in performance practice. You would have done well to consider the substance of that achievement, especially in relation to the issue of metre, and its relevance to the problems faced by the composers you report. Instead, you indulged in a cheap shot about Anglican musicians finding him boring. I’m sorry that, on the basis of your post and comments here, which have been long on assertion and short on detail, this wasn’t entirely surprising. Nor was your jibe altogether wise, for it brings to mind the old proverb that those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

  14. Dear Ian Williams,

    There’s no point in discussing the fact that Merbecke is boring, when the vast majority of Anglican musicians, presumably people of education and taste, agree that he is, and furthermore opine that his Communion Service is only exceeded in boring-ness by the other 98% of his output. Presumably you are not among those musicians.

    As for ICEL/ICET texts, you just don’t get it, do you. You appear to think that I am love with the present texts and so can see no good in the proposed new texts. It so happens that I have serious problems with the current texts as translations, but their linguistic atributes are more positive. This, however, has nothing whatsoever to do with my comments on the proposed new ICEL texts, which are better as translations but are sadly lacking in their linguistic qualities. My opinions on the present ICET texts are not related to my objective judgement (something of which it appears that you are incapable) on the proposed new texts. Once again: generally the new texts are better translations, but generally they are lousy language. We can do better than this, if only folk like you would get on board and assist in the task instead of sniping from the sidelines.

    It would also be a good idea if you were to poll the 35 or so other composers present in St Louis as to their reactions to the new texts (which I reported) instead of presuming what my own attitudes might or might not be.

    I say again, scholarly rigour is distinctly lacking in your discourse. I am taking the time to respond to you, however, because, as I said earlier, I believe dialogue is important. Nevertheless, even dialogue is a lost cause if the other party has closed ears.

  15. It would indeed be good if Catholic composers supported one another.

    I heard a story about a permanent deacon who was ordained last year (2009) in Portsmouth cathedral. In honour of the occasion, his young son (about 20 years old) wrote a very competent 4-part motet. The music director of the ceremony forbade its performance.

    I know that the motet was competently written, because it was executed during a liturgy the following day in the said deacon’s parish church by a competent 4-piece band of London music students. I would contrast the degree of craftsmanship very favourably with most liturgical music one hears these days.

    I don’t know whether the story is true, I don’t represent that it is, and I very much hope and trust that it is false.

  16. I am coming to this discussion a bit late. Along with my dear friend Paul Inwood, I was present at the Composer’s Forum in St. Louis – and Paul more than adequately presents the general feelings of those in attendance.

    In terms of the Glory to God – all I can say from my perspective, that of all of the new texts that are sung – this is the most difficult for composers, not because they are new words – but the new words, as Paul points out, are just awkward from a linguistic point of view.. and the fact that the phrase “and on earth peace..” seems to me representative of a language and sentence structure that is so at odds with the way people use English. For the most part, the changes for the sung texts have not been that difficult – the Sanctus has one word change, the new memorial acclamations for the most part are fine (the last one, “Save Us..” is probably the most awkward). The Gloria:the revised versions are going to be more difficult to embrace than the newer settings.

    1. You might consider looking at resources from the period of the so-called interim missal from 1965, as the Gloria in that edition is very close to what is pending (including the “and on earth peace”).

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