onsdag 6 februari 2013

Swedish Catholics get new hymn book

The new edition of Cecilia, the hymn book for the Swedish Catholic church, was published today. It retains the same general arrangement as the previous one, which dates from the mid-1980s. The most-used pages are in the middle, which means that the book is less likely to fall apart than when the most-used pages are at the front. The centre pages with the Canon of the Mass are edged with grey, to make them easy to find. The typeface is Palatino and the paper is very thin and pale cream in tint. A large-type version is available.

First impressions
The ancient Swedish favourites are in, as they should be, since they form an important part of the national musical heritage. And the lesser-used hymns have been weeded out. As the introduction explains, the recommendations of Sacrosanctum Concilium have been faithfully followed: "The universal treasury of Gregorian chant has been given a prominent place, in accordance with the desire of the Second Vatican Council that all believers should be able to sing the fixed parts of the Mass in Latin".

Thus, the Latin texts are more comprehensive than in the previous edition and the side-by-side translations are now printed in the same size as the vernacular texts. There is a Latin Kyriale and a generous selection of Latin hymns.

Also included, in Swedish, are the new Entrance Antiphons for every Sunday. Hopefully this will encourage churches with choirs to chant them instead of beginning the Sunday service with a hymn, the choice of which tends to give a Protestant flavour to the proceedings. Once again, unfortunately, there is no musical setting for the revised translated text of the Creed, which makes it much harder to remember. However, because of the big variation in the number of syllables between the Swedish and the Latin, setting the vernacular text to any of the Latin tunes would have been no easy matter and is something that can be left till later.

Gregorian chant vandalised
However, anyone browsing through the new hymnal will wonder at first glance where all this Latin Gregorian chant has been put. Unfortunately - and it makes them verging on useless, it has been set in modern musical notation. To anyone familiar with Gregorian chant, well known music has been rendered unrecognisable. It even looks ugly on the page - for all the world like rows of flying eggs. But it is worse then that, because all the nuances of the music have been wiped out in an act of artistic vandalism.

Why bother?
Why did anyone go to the time and trouble? The argument that modern notation is familiar is one that was put forward when chant settings were made for the new English translations, and was probably the rationale in this case too. However, so far as I am aware, no research has ever been carried out to show that modern notation makes Gregorian chant more accessible, and there is, on the contrary, ample experience to confirm that the traditional four-line notation is well within the ability of a class of ten-year-old children.

Anyone with a sensitivity to the music and an awareness of its historic origin would taken the trouble to make sure that it was passed on intact, and further, would have set up some kind of training scheme to spread the knowledge around the country. Given the eminent people who have been involved in the production, how could this could have happened?

The curse of the round notes
Gregorian four-line notion with neumes indicates the shape of the musical phrases in a way that modern notation does not. In the neume notation, regular notes are shown as squares, whereas descending scales of notes, intended to be sung lightly, are shown as diamonds. These scheme encourages a lively style of singing which cannot be recreated with modern notation unless it is heavily annotated afterwards. So not only does the modern notation make the chant more difficult to sing; it also makes it hard to avoid singing it in a way that sounds dreary, since the nuances are not indicated. It will not encourage anyone to sing the Gregorian chant.The decision to use modern notation has effectively sabotaged what could have been a valuable resource. The same applies also to the excellent Swedish adaptations of the chant which would have benefitted greatly from being set in the four-line neume notation.

What now?
Anyone wishing to use Gregorian chant in their parish is now presented with a problem. The people who can teach it would not want to use these settings. It is easy enough to find the right material and print it as required, but that defeats the whole object of having a book with everything in it. As a stop-gap, there is Liber Cantualis, available from the Abbey of Solemnes at €8.50 in quantities of 20 or more. This contains pretty much all the Gregorian chant that is contained in Cecilia in a slim 123 page hardback volume.

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