Changing Liturgical Texts

I’d like to offer a few serious reflections on liturgical texts as given in the English version of MR3. It only took about eighty posts on the Chant Café’s most popular thread this week for someone to ask me what I actually thought about the alteration of the text. I was happy to reply there, and I’ll go in a little deeper here.

I’ve set the new English text of the Gloria once, adapting an existing tune. It was more of an exercise for my own edification. But I managed to fit the text as given with some helpful input from Liam, mostly. I recognize that setting the text as written is my own personal standard. I’ve known great musical settings of Mass elements in which undue liberties were taken (“Our Father, Our Mother, who art …”). That’s a choice I lament. If people like it, the music is inevitably fabulous, but the whole piece is unusable for liturgy.

Composing music for worship is a service to the Church. It’s less that I feel obligated to “obey,” and more that I see setting the Mass as working within a framework. When the music doesn’t fit the text, a songwriter is free to change whatever in the words to fit when the music is right. For sacred music, I accept and even embrace the opportunity to sacrifice the musical side to serve a greater good. For me, it’s a good spiritual discipline. Sometimes I have good things happening in my life, but even these must occasionally be pruned for a higher good.

When I was trying to put together Olive Leaf Mass, I couldn’t come up with a satisfactory adaptation of the shape-note tune Patton for the Mystery of Faith number 1, so I didn’t set it. “When We Eat” worked with the text as given. “Save Us” worked, but only with a repeat of the last line. So the Mass is on hold.

Working with an eight-bar unit of metered music, there are constraints on what is artistic or even possible. Maybe with a collaborator, we could arrive at some satisfactory solutions on things like this. Almost all modern church composers seem to prefer working alone.

I think an optimal solution in some of these instances would be to have longer elements, like the Gloria, Credo, Te Deum, the Gospel Canticles, offered in an approved metrical format. The ICEL Psalter project of the 80’s and 90’s was quite excellent in regard to the ease of setting for both metered music as well as chant.

One of my many criticisms of the English MR3 is the lack of consultation with musicians on the texts for singing. The opening line of the Glory To God is just awkward:

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will.

All that said, Dan Schutte’s publisher submitted his Mass setting to the proper church authorities with a three word repeat, “got it approved,” and barring some intervention from the Temple Police to Rome, that’s how it stands.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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