onsdag 12 juni 2013

A dispute far from settled

I had a discussion with a friend the other day about the benefits of using Latin more widely in the Catholic liturgy. His response was that we should concentrate on getting a better Swedish liturgy and then to walk off.

Of course one does not preclude the other, but it is over forty years since the vernacular was introduced into the Catholic liturgy and one would have thought that things would have settled down to the point that it would no longer be a contested question. Unfortunately, things never have settled down.

The situation here in Sweden is in many ways better than in Britain, but it is far from satisfactory. In Britain, the vernacular was hampered by a banal translation that took liberties with the text. In due course the Ordinary was set to mostly banal music by composers with little talent, but more often, the hymn sandwich came be standard practice: hymns either newly written or of Protestant origin, interspersed with the Ordinary of the Mass spoken by the congregation -the resulting sound being, "rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb." There was never a satisfactory English setting for the Creed.

Now that there is a new English translation, things are almost back to square one. There is a new interest in singing the new Propers instead of falling back on metrical hymns. Unfortunately, the rhythm and syntax of the English language means that it is difficult to set texts to Psalm tones in a way that makes sense of the meaning of those texts. Nor do the Gregorian settings for the Ordinary go well in English. Attempts to set the Creed to existing Gregorian music also fail on the texts because the emphases end up in the wrong places. There are some old Anglican settings that would probably work, such as the sixteenth century Marbeck Creed and Our Father, but there seems to be little interest in following that avenue.

The situation in Sweden is in some ways very different. There is an over-use of metrical hymns of Protestant origin. These set a Lutheran tone to the liturgy as a whole. It is not undignified but it does not establish the Catholic sensibility set by the kind of liturgy, wholly in Latin, one would hear at somewhere such as the London Oratory or Westminster Cathedral. When the music is English and borrowed for use at a different season or occasion the effect can be ludicrous. I recently went to an ordination where one of the hymns was to the tune of "Abide with me", Britain's favourite funeral hymn!

There is, however, a wider use than in the English liturgy of modal music in the Gregorian chant style. The language and psalm tones work together. There have been adaptations of some of the old liturgical texts that cannot be faulted - for instance, for Good Friday. Someone has produced an excellent set of Office Hymns for use by religious communities. Settings of the Ordinary are of mixed quality. Some are good adaptations, but others are clumsy. The Advent/Lent Sanctus is sung all the year round, like food out-of-season. There is no setting for the Creed, which makes it hard to remember. The overall sound of the language is harsh in comparison to Latin.

In Sweden, a new translation and service book, Cecilia, were issued earlier in the year, but unfortunately, the problems were compounded rather than addressed. With over 1300 pages on very thin paper and 2mm type, the book is not easy to handle and use.

There was insufficient weeding-out of the protestant metrical hymns. There is recent music of indifferent quality which did not deserve to be included. There is still no setting for the Creed. The Gregorian settings of both Swedish and Latin were issued in a new type of five-line notation that makes the music hard to read and impossible to sing with any expression without much annotation; the pieces are unrecognisable to anyone familiar with the same music in traditional notation.

This has done little to help in the aim of improving the quality of the Swedish liturgy. What needs to be done? It would be useful if all the Swedish texts, were re-set in Gregorian four-line notation. As an experiment, I tried this with one of the Ordinaries during Lent and the result was an immediate improvement in readability and in the quality of the sound. The Good Friday hymn "Höga kors, du enda ädla" also gained from being put into Gregorian chant notation. The Office Hymns in particular, would benefit from having the music written out for every line. It would also help religious communities if the Swedish translation of the Office was issued with the music, but that would be a huge labour of love, and an expensive printing job to boot. Which then raises the question of whether it is really worth the effort when the Latin liturgy is already available in turnkey form?

The majority of Catholics, including the priests, are immigrants and as Swedish is not their native tongue, there are foreign chaplaincies: thus there are many parishes where Mass is said in half a dozen different languages but not Latin, the official language of the Catholic church! One effect is to split parishes into language groups, and from that point of view it would help if people were brought together with a single liturgy. Getting the Swedish liturgy into better shape, with an authentically Catholic sound is, in my view, a project worth pursuing, but I believe this needs to run alongside the improvement of the liturgy through the wider use of Latin.

Latin is one of the three Holy languages. Its universal use is both a sign and means of ensuring the Catholicity of the Roman church. This needs to be firmly pointed out to anyone who says "I don't like Latin in the liturgy".

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