Gregorian Melodies with Vernacular Hymn Texts: A Proposal

NOTE: this post is available in PDF at the end of the post, which may be easier to read for some readers.

The melodies of Latin office hymns have varied across time, up to the present day when the most “authentic” melodies were restored in the 1983 Liber Hymnarius. The last line of Veni, creator Spiritus, for example, continues to be reprinted the “old” way in congregational hymnals, misheeding the official version in the Liber Hymnarius:german-hymns-1a

This despite the document of the U.S. Catholic bishops Sing to the Lord, no. 80, which asks that everyone standardize to the Liber Hymnarius version of Gregorian hymns. Oh well.

I’ve had in mind this malleability of the chant melodies lately as I’ve been thinking about the use of the venerable Gregorian melodies with vernacular texts. Here the issue is more pressing, for it concerns the difference between Latin accentuation and English accentuation. According to a widely-held but certainly not unanimous theory, English accents are heavier than their Latin counterparts. (I argue this in the foreword to Chants of the Roman Missalexplaining the approach taken in the English chant of the 2011 English Missal: Study Edition, and won’t repeat it here.) Unlike English, Latin allows for “displacement” of melodic note groups onto unaccented syllables, oftentimes alongside just a single note on an accented syllable. The English accented syllable has more energy and has a sort of magnetic force pulling note groups to it. The melodic accents generally need to line up with the English textual accents. The note groups work better on accented syllables than unaccented ones in English.

Consider this noonday hymn from The Hymnal 1982, no. 19. Its text is in long meter (8 8 8 8 ), with accents on every other syllable: da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM. The editors obviously thought that the Latin melody could be transferred to the English text with no adaptation, which is to say, with no attention to English accentuation:


The problem is most apparent in the first and third lines, where the melodic accent (which I’ve marked) is out of sync with the textual accent, giving us spi-RIT. But some would say that there is an infelicity in the second and fourth lines as well, where the E-D-D creates a dactyl emphasizing the first note and causing the last note, which is on a weighty accented syllable, to fade away.

We use the 1982 in St. John’s Abbey. I recall when we began singing this hymn at noon prayer some years ago that it was a bit “lumpy” and didn’t quite feel right. The choirs struggled with it. Through repetition we’ve gotten it down, and now it works, but it still doesn’t quite flow.

I’m considering adapting the melodies as follows in the big new hymnal I’m editing for the abbey:


I did not simply move the slurs over in the first and third line, with BA – F# on “SPI-rit” and “TO our.” There are two reasons for this, one having to do with modality and one having to do with rhythm.

  • First, modality. The original Latin melody nicely emphasizes both the B and the A (and a Latin unaccented syllable, I’m arguing, can bear the heavy clivis A-F#). Shifting the slur obscures this, emphasizing only the B (and perhaps the F# a bit more than A).
  • Second, rhythm. Shifting the slur sets up a waltz rhythm, with 2-1 | 2-1 resulting on “Holy Spirit.” Part of the beauty of the Latin melody, typically, is the creative interplay between melodic implied patterns of 2-1 and 1-2, and between groups of 2 and groups of 3.

Hence my proposal to add a note to the lone B, to give more melodic accent where it’s needed. There is a price, to be sure – there almost always is! – in that there are too many two-note patterns in the end of the line, from B to the end. But I think it works – but barely so – because there is rhythmic variety in that the line begins with a melodic group of 3 (on “holy”) followed by the sequence of all two-note groups.

For the third line, I shifted a slur on “forth” to create one three-note group, followed by a single note, so that the line would not have a monotony of all two-note groups. This preserves more of the “feel” of Latin, albeit with a solution not needed with the Latin text.

I’m less certain about the end of the second and fourth lines. Perhaps they could stand as they are, and perhaps I will revert to that. The adaptation fits the text slightly better, but I’m not sure if that’s worth the price of the resulting heavy feel. The Latin original, even with English, is more elegant in my view.

For the reader who is rebelling against or resisting the whole line thus far, let me note that all this is not some semiological heresy unique to Collegeville or that left-wing dissident Anthony Ruff. It is what has been done for several decades now in German-language chant books – which is to say, in places where chant scholarship historically has been especially advanced.

Here is an example – a Latin melody from Liber Hymnarius put next to its counterpart in the Antiphonale zum Stundengebet (I have the 1996 edition before me).


The German adaptation succeeds in most every respect: it fits the German text, it preserves the modally important notes, and its rhythm isn’t too bad. It could be argued, though, that the second and third lines have too many two-note groups in a row, and the elimination of the three-note group of the Latin (on “CHRIStum” and “..LUti”) make for a “goose-step” feel. What the Germans did at the end of the first and last line, btw, inspired my treatment of the end of the second and fourth line in my example from 1982 above.

Here’s another example from the German speakers – their rather heavily adapted melody for Ad cenam Agni. (It’s on p. 74 of the Liber Hymnarius if you wish to look it up.)


Here’s my dream: the U.S. bishops, or the bishops of ICEL, would take up this issue and standardize the melodic version of every hymn melody in the Liber Hymnarius for use with English hymn texts. We’ve seen so much work done translating Latin office hymns into English meter in recent years, and it sure would be nice to have standardized chant melodies that worked as well as possible with them.

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  1. I agree – I like lines 2 and 4 from the 1982 better. I like what you did to fix the accent on Spi-RIT in line 1, but I’m inclined to omit the A from “rit” such that “rit” falls only on the F as a punctum. That way, you’re not adding notes but just moving the accent. It also sings more naturally, at least in my mind. I love the torculus on “forth” in the third line. Like the first line, I prefer “our” to be just on the F, but I wondered if you were going for “ou-r” rather than “our.” If the former, how fun would it be if the F in the A-F clivis were a liquescent! Come to think of it, the “rit” on the first line could be a liquescent too… I don’t think making a note a liquescent messes too much with the original tune, but might make the textual accents fit better. I’m assuming, of course, that you will rehearse the liquescent with the monks before office so everyone will move from one note to the other at the same time and without accenting the wrong note. 😉

    1. @Audrey Seah:
      Thanks for your comments. You’re pushing me to keep the end of the 2nd and 4th line as is.
      Replace the clivis A-F# with just F#? This would introduce a jump from B down to F#, which I find jarring. I wonder if once couldn’t do what the German-speakers do and drop, rather, the F#. There is enough F# in the line elsewhere that it still feels modally balanced to me.

      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:
        Oh, no no. SPI would be on a B-A clivis as you (not the 1982) have it, but the “rit” will go on F#, so it’ll be an A to F# interval, not B to F#. I kinda like the F# and would keep it myself. I think it works well on a weak syllable.

    2. @Audrey Seah:
      Audrey, I gave the reason I didn’t set “Spirit” in the first line as BA – F# in what immediately follows my notated proposed alternative – see the two reasons (bullet points) I give. FWIW.

  2. Are the melodies (which I assume are in the public domain?) as heavily regulated by church law as the texts? I.e. do composer’s not have license to adapt the melodies as necessary?

    1. @Jim Pauwels:
      Yes, the melodies are public domain since they are centuries old. The typesetting of them is copyrighted, though, so one must typeset them for himself. I put everything in 5-line in this post, but in the Latin official books and in the German vernacular book, they are in 4-line.

  3. I know among many chant enthusiasts and choral musicians (the second of which I have a terminal degree in), I’m in the minority here, but I sing English texts to the Latin hymn tunes daily, and have never related to others’ opinion of the severity of the problem.

    At a certain point many English (and German) adaptations (for me) can end up sounding utilitarian. Sure changing a note here or there is fine, but in the case of the Ad cenam Agni example above, where does one draw the line? When is the connection to the original lost?

    My sense is that the occasional (in some cases frequent) tension between textual and melodic accents is an essential element of the beauty of the chant. (And I’ve spent enough of my career working and singing in both Latin and English to understand the differences between the languages. I still think it’s overstated.)

    Ultimately, when both text and melodic accents align all the time the music begins sounding just modal, and for me merely modal music does not chant make.

  4. When I was in high school in Rockford IL during between 1963-67, one of the School Sisters of St. Francis of Milwaukee WI, Sister Leonette, produced an entire hymnal of Gregorian chants with English texts. I have no idea whatever happened to them but I remember them being bound. I believe she worked with a priest on it. It helped us to transition through the liturgical changes following the Council. She was ahead of her time.

  5. I’ve just checked the “Veni Creator Spiritus” in the booklet for Mother Teresa’s canonization: it has the authentic melody shown above.

  6. As a part-time choir director who would love to introduce more chant into our liturgies, I applaud any effort to create vernacular adaptions of familiar chant melodies. Elimination of one hurdle (language) has proven to be useful in introducing both chant and polyphony to my group. Please let me know if the hymnal will be available outside of Collegeville when completed!

  7. I greatly respect Anthony’s life work as a monk composer and lover of chant, but his proposal raises this question for me: Do we wish to foster the practice of motivating our assemblies to sing the liturgy as the highest form of praising God with song, or, do we instead want to introduce a particular kind of music known as “chant” on assemblies for whom it is mostly foreign and unknown? Catholic parishes,in the US at least, never employed the singing of Gregorian chant other than by organist/singers at requiem Masses, or by choirs at the occasional solemn high Mass. I run into some younger priests who seem to believe that chant was the norm until the “church wreckers” following Vatican II decided to replace it with insipid folk ditties. I have been blessed over 43 years to have successfully motivated assemblies to welcome sung liturgy as normative. I do appreciate chant as a musical form which can send some souls soaring, including my own, but so can other forms of music accomplish the same. But for communities that desire to employ chant, I hope Anthony’s vision come to fruition.

    1. @Jack Feehily:
      Jack, I think you start with the children to introduce the chant. Back in the 80s when I used the Ward Method in my music classes, I was struck by the enthusiasm that the grade-school children had for singing chant and trying it out in worship.

    2. @Jack Feehily:
      Normally the way one begins to make something familiar and known is to introduce it. It’s not like children live surrounded by Catholic contemporary liturgical music either – it’s a peculiar idiom of its own like nothing found streaming out to the masses.

      1. @Alan Griffiths:
        Well, what seems to me to to be happening is, as always, a slow culling. It’s a process. I care less about hymns and more about psalter and service music. That’s where stasis reigns unless more forcibly guided into movement. Some stasis represents a maturation of a fine repertoire; much doesn’t. So forcible guiding can be a helpful tool, but also a destructive one. What I see is the too common practice of service music being the wallpaper (this allows music ministries to focus on the juicy bits); changing that habit is where I believe much more good can be cultivated and made fruitful.

  8. Another option would be to use translations that better match the Latin rhythm, but those can sometimes be quite stilted.

    Is it not possible to retain the original Latin text, at least for hymns that are used more regularly, focusing on refining translations/text-fits for those feasts whose hymns occur but once a year or so? The recurring hymns would then be fitting for textual analysis and study that would go along with the liturgical year.

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