Chant and Language

My horse isn’t in this race, but it seems that the Roman Catholic International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) is coming out with Gregorian chants in English for use in the Mass. One might wonder why they’re just getting around to this forty some years after Vatican II, or what happened to the Gregorian chants that used to appear in the back of the Missalette, but those are side issues. My main concern is the misconceptions regarding chant, as opposed to hymns or songs.

A commenter says on this post:

I have often seen here discussion of setting translations to chant, and yet many of these “adaptations” seem quite far from the original chant melodies.

Since chant is melismatic, it would seem easy to set any number of syllables to a given set of notes (even if means splitting up a neume group to cover more than one syllable).

So he starts off fine, if he has an imperfect understanding of the definition of melisma, but then goes on to say:

Only when there are too few notes in the original to fit all the syllables of the translation (even if each syllable is only given one note from the original)…would there be a problem. Even then, it seems that the extra syllables could be covered simply by repeating or strategically doubling some of the notes already there.

Let’s look at chant for a minute (note that this would not include harmonized Slavic or Greek liturgical music misidentified as “chant,” but does include chant proper, be it Slavic, Greek, or Gregorian). Chant differs from what we hear and identify as music, which in this context I will call hymns, in three ways.

  1. Hymns have a fixed melody; chants have no fixed melody.
  2. Hymns have a fixed meter; chants have no fixed meter.
  3. Hymns are tonal; chants are modal.

The last isn’t really relevant here, so let’s ignore it (I will probably return to it at some point in the future). The first two are related, so let’s tackle them together. First, let’s take a hymn, say, Ein Feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress). It has an immediately recognizable melody and meter (rhythm). If you want to sing it in some obscure language, you’re probably going to have to fiddle with the melody, and fit the melody to the translation (you’ll probably also have to fiddle with the translation). This is what the commenter is talking about.

Chants, however, do not have a fixed melody or meter. Chants have what we can call a melody shape, that is, the chant will begin on a reciting tone and continue there, then move up a note or two, then back down, and so forth, but how long you remain on the initial note and when you move away from it are not fixed. You fit the melody shape (the tone or mode) to the translation. A chant will never “not have enough notes” for the text.

Chants are therefore plastic, because there are only eight tones/modes, and they are meant to be fitted to different texts. For this reason, it does not follow that some languages chant better than others.

Yet, in this discussion of the same topic, some obviously believe just that. Some are comparing their subjective reactions to chanted Latin with the chant of an English translation, but you can always come up with a bad translation, or fit it poorly to the tone or mode. It just isn’t an argument. Language and chant are two entirely separate entities, and if you’re going to compare to an arbitrarily prototypical “chant language,” then why Latin? Why not Greek, or even more to the point, Hebrew?

There is an obvious bias toward Latin here, but there is also a linguistic difference. One commenter comes close here:

English is indeed harder because we have many vowel-blends that arent pure (like i,ay, etc). And one can certainly argue about the specific choices I made of where to split up the words, which syllables to assign more than one note, etc…I’m sure people might have more ingenious solutions than I, I cooked this translation up in just 15 minutes.

Diphthongs certainly affect singing, although there was ways to do it, but the real issue in the Latin v. English debate, which could just as easily be the Greek v. English debate, is that Latin and Greek are CV languages, while English (not to mention Slavonic) are CVC languages, that is, we have two rough language types with two different syllable shapes.

Greek and Latin, and indeed, all Romance languages, are CV, or open syllable languages, meaning that the default syllable begins with a consonant and ends with a vowel. This does, indeed, give them a different sung or chanted quality because we can sustain vowels over time, but not consonants (well not most consonants). CV languages also tend to have fewer consonant clusters than CVC languages.

CVC languages, or closed syllable languages, like English and the other Germanic languages, or Slavonic and the Slavic languages typically display syllables that begin and end in consonants with a vowel forming the center of the syllable. They also tend to display more consonant clusters than CV languages.

This does not mean that CVC languages are harder to chant, or not as adaptable to chant. It means that you chant them differently.

There’s nothing inherently more difficult, or less conducive to chant, about “Let my prayer arise in thy sight as incense.” It’s ridiculous to claim that Latin is a superior chanting language, unless you believe that chant has a fixed melody and meter that must be closely adhered to in translation. And if you do, you don’t understand chant.

In the same thread, however, a number of other commenters raise an excellent point, like this:

Actually, Canon Douglas arranged all of the standard Latin plainchant Mass Settings for the English of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer while staying at the Convent of the Community of Saint Mary in Peekskill, NY in the 1930’s. (Whether our mystery priest would find them acceptable is, of course, a different matter.) All set to traditional chant was the Monastic Diurnal used by the Sisters. All was in tradiional Gregorian notation.

Since then, the Sisters, now resident in Greenwich, NY, have redone both the Mass Settings and the Diurnal for contemporary language (Episcopal Rite II) still in traditional notation. The Sisters use both on a regular basis.

Or more to the point:

Why reinvent the wheel? The Anglican Church in publications such as the Manual of Plainsong has done the job years ago. The English is good too, one of the glories of the English language, not the production of a committee. It could be adopted in toto, just a Luther’s hymns have been adopted by German Catholics, and the Book of Divine Worship by American ones.

Why reinvent the wheel, indeed. You’d think that as much work as it entails, churches would never do that, but they do. Consider English translations of Orthodox services. Every jurisdiction has their own translation, and they range from the sublime (Antiochian) to the atrocious (GOA).

As I understand it, the Antiochians were the first to translate all of the services beginning back in the 30s, and they used as their model the then-new 1928 Book of Common Prayer (the Nasser compilation was first published in 1938). Whatever the details, the translators were sensitive to such issues as poetics, cadence, sonority, and register, all of which seem to escape translators today (compare the King James to Good News for Modern Man).

The not only have the best translation. They also have the first.

For whatever reason, other jurisdictions followed, but instead of lifting the astounding work of the Antiochians, employed their own translators, and with different results. The ROCOR, like the Antiochians, understood such issues as cadence and register, but weren’t always overly concerned about grammar. If the Antiochian translation is best described as KJV English, the OCA might be described as RSV English. Then, there is the GOA translation, which was concerned only with communication, and like modern translations of the Bible, shows a tin ear to all other considerations (“dreadful” comes to mind).

From what I see on the Byzantine Forum, the various Eastern Rites are likewise reinventing the wheel (or the flat tire, depending on the translation). Again, why?

That isn’t a rhetorical question. I don’t know. But to return to music, when the Roman Catholics decided to lift Protestant hymns, they just had to screw with the lyrics. O Sacred Head Now Wounded became O Sacred Head Surrounded. Why? There’s no good reason that I have ever been able to discover.

So if anybody has a good theory, I’d like to hear it.


One Response to Chant and Language

  1. DominicanFriar says:

    A theory about Catholics changing the lyrics to standard Protestant hymns: Most of those texts are in the public domain. But if a publishing company alters the lyrics, then it can copyright the new version and charge parishes royalties for printing it in worship aids. The Catholic music publishing industry is a real scandal, not just for this issue, but also because it drives the direction of liturgy in the U.S. according to its own bottom line.

    As for why Catholics re-invent the musical wheel when there are Orthodox, Protestant, and Anglican best practices for liturgical music. There’s a whole culture in the American Catholic Church that is responsible for this (a culture, I might add which goes well back before Vatican II). Thomas Day has written a lot about this.

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