Words Can Change Us – Can We Change Them?

I wonder if you have ever noticed the variant texts that occur in different versions of the same Taizé chant? Over the years a number of Taizé chants have been modified – this happened especially at the beginning of the 1990s. Sometimes the motive behind the changes was an attempt to produce a more inclusive, or a more “politically correct”, text. In the case of others chants, changes seem to have been introduced for other reasons, not all of which are easy to discern. It can occasionally be rather disconcerting, and people often ask me “Which version should I use?”…

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15 comments

  1. Interesting. I hadn’t seen the change in the Taizé chant, “Stay with me / Remain here with me / Watch and pray / Watch and pray.” Perhaps the new wording is to get away from having the first two phrases be exact synonyms. That’s always bugged me about that text…apparently we’d like to state the same thing first in Anglo-Saxon and then in Latinate terms. 🙂 I hadn’t seen the newer version you quote.

    1. @Scott Knitter – comment #1:

      The thing is, the German actually means “Stay here / and keep watch with me”. “Remain here” is nowhere in the original. That was why I rendered it as “Stay with me, watching with me”. The cumulative effect of three “watching”s in four phrases is very different from the somewhat prosaic official rendition, I believe.

  2. Well, the issue of *ripeness* is an ever-present concern in eras where barriers to publication are low and copyright ossifies works in a way that obstructs the more traditional dialogue of performance practice over time.

    One word: wait.

    I’ve just seen way too many texts or musical settings that are not ripe, and also betray the lack of a gimlet-eyed editor.

  3. Paul Inwood refers in his article to the opening of the ‘Gloria’ and in particular to the position of the word ‘peace.’ While I am not sure I agree with him on this particular issue, he is, I think, justified in his sense that rhythmically, the text as we have it does not flow too well .

    I grew up with the translation of the ‘Gloria’ in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (where ‘peace’ sits in the same position as it does in the approved translation of the Missal) and two musical settings of the ‘Gloria’ particularly stuck in my memory, those by John Merbecke (Book of Common Prayer Noted,1550) and Martin Shaw (An Anglican Folk Mass, 1927).

    Both these settings follow the flow of what starts out as a sensitively crafted text.

    On item in particular in the approved translation which I find rhythmically difficult is the word ‘adore’ in ‘We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you,’ and also ‘we give you thanks for your great glory.’ The Prayer Book uses the word ‘worship’ instead of ‘adore’ and has ‘we give thanks to thee for thy great glory.’

    Now perhaps I am biased because this text and its music performed a ‘catch them young’ operation on me, but I still think that the BCP translation flows better: ‘We praise thee, we bless thee, we worship thee, we glorify thee; we give thanks to thee for thy great glory.’

    I am not an expert in prosody as Paul is, all I can say is that I have an instinctive feel for the BCP version because of the facility of its movement which lends itself better to music. There is music inherent in the text, which I find lacking in so much of the approved translation of the Roman Missal.

    Like Paul, I have experience and anecdotal evidence of how priests rework the Missal texts, sometimes retouching them slightly to aid the flow (often you don’t have to do much) and sometimes altering them more widely. It is inevitable that some of these emendations will have merit. What a shame it is that we can’t collect them.

    AG

    1. @Alan Griffiths – comment #4:
      To me, the musical difficulties over the place of “peace” in the 2011 Gloria are less important than the inaccuracy of the translation. Current New Testaments are virtually unanimous in avoiding “peace on earth to people of good will” in favor of “peace on earth to those on whom God’s favor rests” (or some variant thereof). “Peace to God’s people on earth,” easier for composers to set, may have been paraphrastic, but at least it didn’t import an inaccuracy.

  4. The second line of the Gloria works well in triple time, but then the danger is that the whole opening section up to “glorify you” can get a bit breathless.

  5. I find the Gloria works best in unmetered chant. Triple meter is particularly lethal to its quality; it tends to reduce it to a ditty.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #6:
      Agreed. But some of that ditty quality is due to the lack of imagination in the arrangement or the playing. The David Haas Gloria from the Mass of Light is a prime example. The recording is too slow in my opinion; the piece should be presented not in triple meter, but a strong emphasis on the downbeat. And for the well-known sections, an occasional two playing against the three.

      The challenge there is that to render the music really well, the text must be rushed a bit. So that’s been a trade-off. We haven’t brought it into MR3 in my parish just yet.

      However, many composers object to the musical alteration of their works. David might never want to see what I’ve done to one or two other of his works. I’ll use the texts as is, but sometimes a harmonization can be improved.

      1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #7:
        Actually, it was Mass of Light that I had in mind, along with a couple of others. I’ve witnessed it done very competently in 1, mind you. The thing just wrecks my ability to pray; I just have to resort to privately praying the Gloria text; if it was programmed for the duration of a season, I would feel a need to attend a Mass without music, which takes a lot for me. Part of the problem with that setting is that it makes the vocal parts seem reverse-engineered as an excuse for the pianist to have great fun. There are aspects of the revised setting that are better or worse than the original, but overall it makes the text seem squeezed into an ill-fitting dress.

  6. Karl Liam Saur : I find the Gloria works best in unmetered chant. Triple meter is particularly lethal to its quality; it tends to reduce it to a ditty.

    It can do, but three in a bar doesn’t have to mean oom-pah-pah.
    3/4 time can be as stately and majestic as you want. I personally find that a strong rhythm can add strength and vigour to a sung text, while free rhythm can have the opposite effect and enfeeble it.

  7. I was in Taize a few times in the 90s too. I thought the main problem with the original “Bless the Lord” was the word lead. A lot of English-as-a-second-language people were pronouncing it as the element and as the verb. I heard it during prayers and it was very distracting.

  8. I’m pretty sure my first introduction to Taizé in the early 1990s had ‘Stay with me, remain here with me, watching and praying, watching and praying’ (present continuous). I thought it fitted rather well with a syllable on each note change and the ongoing nature of the verbs suggested the prayer was ongoing too.

    I have a vague memory from conversations with one of the female soloists on a couple of Taizé’s CDs (she was in my music group at church) that ‘In the Lord’ was changed to make it inclusive by dropping the ‘in him rejoicing’ in exchange for ‘lift up your voices’ as it sounded better. It was an English idiom and, obviously, worked well in English. They did have a run of ‘our hearts untroubled, the Lord is near’, but it sounded like ‘our hearts are troubled’ so it didn’t last long.

    ‘Bless the Lord’ was changed, I think, because singing the word ‘death’ over and over again was a bit depressing. Singing ‘life’ was much more positive. It was either Br Paolo or Br Stephen that told me this (I think – it was a long time ago).

    Sometimes words/music was changed because of how it ended up getting sung. Laudate Dominum’s soprano line was changed to mirror the original tenor line because that was what non-readers of music used to end up singing. Similarly, I think, for ‘Toi tu nous aimes’, although the last time I was there the brother leading the singing used to belt out the written tenor line as if it was the tune and encourage the congregation to sing that.

    Sometimes changes are made in a hurry without too much thought and things get stuck, especially if things have gone to print. At the European meeting in Warsaw a few years ago ‘Wyslawiajcie Pana’ was the new song, but the Polish verses didn’t fit with the outline tune as they had been put to music by a non-Polish speaker. I was helping with the solos in one of the choirs, along with one of my friends with whom I was staying in Warsaw. He rejigged the words/syllables to better fit, and this version is now what Taizé run with, but the final syllables of the solos merge with the congregation’s response. I remember pointing it out to my friend at the time pen was being put to paper that the style/snappy rhythm of the song had been lost (compared to the other languages). There is a gap for two solo phrases, the first has to be complete by the start of the 4th beat as that is when ‘Wy’ of ‘Wyslawiajcie’ comes in, but rather than finish the last two syllables of the solo as quavers starting on the 3rd beat, two crotchets were written on the 3rd and 4th beats, with a clash on the 4th with the congregation coming in. It always made me smile it was a Polish song that had a rhythm glitch when sung with Polish solos! But knowing how it came into being made me smile more. Perhaps I should have spoken a bit louder but my Polish was not that good.

    I used to like Taizé’s use of the present continuous. It made me feel things were ongoing. Tenses can do a lot. Think of the Eucharistic prayer for various needs and occasions (and I’ve mentioned this on here before). It used to talk of the faith ‘only you [God] can know’ (present). It now talks of the faith ‘you [God] alone have known’ (past). My understanding from people here was that the Latin has this past tense form of the verb. To me, the former had a much stronger notion of the idea the faith was ongoing, even in death, and I liked this. Words can say such a lot and often it is when things change that the contrast is most noticeable.

  9. More on the present continuous… ‘Jesus le Christ (lumiere interieur…)’ used to be sung in English as ‘Jesus, your light, is shining within us’, with Jesus sung in French or English having syllables that coincided. It got changed to ‘Lord Je-sus Christ, your light shines within us’ before a CD came out. Clunky, wrong syllabic emphasis on the word Jesus, and the present continuous lost. The addition of ‘Lord’ and ‘Christ’, for me, muffled the emphasis on the interior light that the French original was trying to describe. It made it too formal. In my music group we used to use the old words, or sing in French. I suppose I’d liken the present continuous to 1998 and the most recent one to 2011…

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