Will interest in English propers endure?

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


  1. Mr. Ford, you say well what I’ve thought for some time. I’m in a Latin-propers Episcopal parish, and while I’m thankful the propers are sung, in the best of all worlds I’d prefer they be in clear English. And I’m of the strong opinion that English and chant can go together, as you well know and have made happen, with great sensitivity to the small changes that help it work. Thank you for your good work in this field.

  2. During the school year, my Episcopal parish typically does the propers in English, and the Gloria and Sanctus in Latin at Solemn High Mass, all chanted/sung by the Schola Cantorum. Usually the music for the Latin parts are from Masses written from the fourteenth century on to the present. Sometimes we do Anglican settings of the Mass and the Gloria and Sanctus are in English.

  3. Thank you Bruce! In the Catholic Church, I wonder about the future of propers regardless of language. To my mind, the most fundamental issue of the liturgy that Vatican II insufficiently raised was the distinction of ministry and roles in the mass. Sac. Conc. declared, “Etiam ministrantes, lectores, commentatores et ii qui ad scholam cantorum pertinent, vero ministerio liturgico funguntur.” Does that mean the the role of the choir is properly ministerial AS OPPOSED TO LAY? Shortly before, the document distinguishes between ministers and the laity. If the function is ministerial rather than lay (and this is the correct approach) how concerned should we be that the congregation listens to the propers rather than sings?

  4. Catholics and Anglicans are in diferent but overlapping liturgical circumstances, in which we can learn much from each other about the value of good liturgical English and its close relationship to good liturgical music, and the unfortunate inverse of that phenomenon. Perhaps we also have something to share when it comes to the liturgical use of the Western Church’s older sacral languages, not least because sacral English has historically had a strong relationship to liturgical Latin.

  5. Let’s not forget that the vast majority of parishes aren’t doing this in English or Latin; chanted, spoken, or to rock-guitar.

    Yes, do the work of translation. Yes, write new music as well. Yes, publish easy to use Latin editions.

    But also- don’t forget that the most parishes in this country are staffed by volunteer musicians who don’t even know what a “Proper” is. That’s were the real work needs to be done.

  6. I have often thought that it would be helpful if, in addition to the Book of Common Prayer and it’s accompanying Altar Book, there was an approved Sacramentary for the Episcopal Church, drawing together the BCP, Lesser Feasts and Fasts and other approved liturgical materials — and including the propers in English, and in their proper places. Some have attempted creation of such volumes, but always as individual (and idiosyncratic) projects.

    My suspicion is that where there is commitment to singing the propers, such commitment goes along with an Anglo-Catholic identity that desires the Latin to be used. However, English propers would go a long way toward preserving congregational song as such, alongside hymnody, etc.

  7. I appreciate BF’s well-written words, which match the high quality of his English adaptations, but I’m torn on this issue. I like Latin better for the propers because the musical settings are so text-driven (much more so than other parts of the chant repertoire), and even a well-done English setting loses something. I use Latin because that seems appropriate to our OSB setting. But I often wonder who in the congregation, besides maybe a few monks and perhaps a student or two, gets the subtlety of the Latin setting anyway. There are very good reasons for using an English version which, though aesthetically ‘inferior,’ conveys more to people than the Latin does. I do what I do, but I by no means think my way is the right way or the best way.

    1. “I do what I do, but I by no means think my way is the right way or the best way.”

      I see your point. There will always be parishes that need to use the alius cantus congruus option. However, singing the Bible as part of the liturgy has to be held as more than just the ideal. The traditional Latin propers today may only have a stable home in cathedrals and religious houses, and perhaps that is not a bad thing. After that, it is not clear to me whether the traditional propers in translation is the next most desirable or the Latin seasonal propers in the Grad. Simp. Maybe a mix depending on relevancy to the readings? I don’t know, but the goal of singing the prescribed Bible verses really should be expected if a choir is able.

      1. Thanks Johann. I was only comparing Latin propers vs. English propers, I wasn’t taking on at all that other very interesting issue of propers vs. hymns.

    2. Fr. Anthony,

      You write of the musical settings of the propers as being “text-driven,” and therefore of the relative superiority of the Latin text vis-a vis the chant melodies. Having studied various methods for interpreting the musical settings, I have to agree. But more and more I’m convinced that the settings are text-driven not only in terms of their melodies, but also of their rhythmic structures, which becomes crystal clear when a semiological (as opposed to an equalist or even Solesmes) interpretation of the neumes is applied. How much of this is lost or distorted when a chant melody is adopted or adapted for an English text? And is there then need for development of a repertoire of chant melodies specifically for English…

  8. Cody Unterseher,

    I think you make a very important point in comment #10. Phonologically, the most significant difference between modern English and Church Latin has to be stress accent, although there are also some “natural” pitch patterns (See some of the studies of David Crystal.)

    Fr. Anthony,

    As you say in comment #9, the more common question in Catholic circles is not Latin v English but propers v hymns. In fact, in my experience, the 4 hymn Mass is the usual practice and propers are the exception. I notice that the American bishops more or less avoided this issue in “Sing to the Lord.”

  9. Chuck;

    I guess you could say that the Bishops avoided the issue in SttL…I prefer to say that they threw a bone to both sides and then proclaimed “either bone is just fine with us”.

    This has been my greatest criticism of SttL… it resolves none of the contentious issues that it needed to resolve in order to acheive the kind of progress that it set out to acheive in the preface.

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