2 April 2015

Why did someone decide to make our hymns stupid?

I was preparing to sing for Easter Sunday, an honour for which I am entirely unworthy, when I was struck by the crummy words of what I was singing.

The odd thing is that, once upon a time, the words were fine, and matched the music, and indeed the spirit of the Mass quite well.  Then someone thought they could make an improvement.  This impulse to make an improvement appears to afflict editors everywhere, and then they afflict us with their latest brain child, or should I say Rosemary's baby?

They don't like the old words of the old hymns.  It sounds perhaps reasonable to some, but by 'old words' they mean thee, thy, thou, thine, ye. hast and old verb forms ending in -eth.  That's about it.  You may look at that list and think:  "Well, perhaps that isn't too large a list of words to learn," but they know better than you.  Out they go, to be replaced by you, your, has and other modern verbiage.  Incidentally, thee and thine are great words for the singer.  The vowels place you firmly in middle voice, so they may be sung through out the range with a bell like quality.  You and your are horrible words to sing,  They start with a dipthong- 'y' is usually pronounced by a lowering then raising the pitch into the vowel, meaning you must go off pitch to sing 'you' and 'your'- and then go into "oo" which favours head voice and doesn't sound good throughout the range.  'Your' has the opening pitch change,  followed by an 'o' sound, which sounds better than 'oo', particularly if you give it an Italianate pronunciation, but then it has the terminal 'r', which is indeed terminal for singing. Both words are lousy for singing, which means that many hymns were re-written for the purpose of accommodating unsingable words.

In addition to those words, there is also the horribly offensive word 'man', which I shall not get into at the moment, and  the word 'ghost'- as in, 'Holy Ghost'- which had to be put back into the grave for the preferred 'spirit,' which really brings me to my practice for Easter.  The closing hymn for my Sunday will be Jesus Christ is Risen Today, a good solid hymn.  One can hardly escape singing this hymn at a Catholic church on Easter Sunday, nor should one want to.  But my book rewrote the final verse and replaced it with, well, something else.  Originally, the verse goes like this:

Sing we to our God above, Alleluia!
Praise eternal as His love, Alleluia!
Praise Him, all ye heavenly host, Alleluia!
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Alleluia
The trajectory of the verse is simple:  We call on ourselves to praise him, eternally.  We call on the heavenly Host to praise God as well, so both the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant can join in God's praises  then we name the trinity.  Unfortunately, the final line has the offending word Ghost, which must therefore go.  Unfortunately, Ghost is the final word which rhymes with the previous  line, so the previous line must be rewritten as well (plus, it had that awful 'ye' in there, so the line had it coming anyway.)  What did they do with the final two lines?  This:

Praise him, now his might confess, Alleluia!
Father, Son and Spirit bless.  Alleluia!

What is the 'now' doing?  Nothing.  It's just there to fill in a syllable so the meter still works.   Why are we suddenly confessing his might, and what does that have to do with the rest of the verse?  Nothing.  They got rid of Ghost, so they needed to words that rhymed, and came up with 'confess' and 'bless', so they needed something for us to confess.  Even better, 'bless' is the wrong word.  Unless I am very much mistaken, the word should be 'blessed' or 'blest'- as in "Spirit Blest".  It is a poor substitute for Holy Spirit or Ghost, but at least it's an approximation.  As it is, it is a verb, just floating out there without a clear subject or object.  Are we calling on the Father Son and Spirit to bless something not specified, or are we calling on ourselves to bless them?  It makes little sense.

Less sense is the translation of Victimae Paschali Laudes.  When I pushed to sing that, I got some push back to sing it in its English translation, which is terrible, both metrically and as a translation.  I find it almost impossible to sing in English, while the Latin flows beautifully.  And why would Latin cause confusion?  The two texts are right on top of each other in the hymnal.  I can sing in Latin and the congregation can follow the English if they so desire.  But no.  I managed to convince the powers that be to let me sing most of it in the original Latin, and sing just a few lines in English.  But those English lines are terrible in meter and meaning.  For instance, it has the line: "I saw Christ Jesus living and adored."  Confusing.  The original Latin means "I saw Jesus Christ living and I adored him."  That isn't what the translation says.  In order to make it fit the melody, they turned the translation to gibberish.    As constructed, 'adored' belongs to "Christ Jesus living"  so the  line means something like "I saw Christ Jesus living.  He was being adored."  By whom? Who saw the Resurrection before Mary?

The proof that whoever did the translation had no ear for meter can be proven when he stretches out the middle syllable of 'Galilee'  to two notes.  placing a melisma on a syllable gives it a slight stress- so in this case, he stressed the only unstressed syllable in the word.  Try it.  In English we stress the first and last syllable:  GA- li-LEE.  He's got it "ga-LI-lee."  It goes against the language.  It is very awkward to sing a written.

I have told my music director that I would love to take our hymnals out back and shoot them, before we burn them.  But there are two problems  with that:  First, we don't have the money to replace them, nor do we have the money to print out copies of old hymns for every Mass, as some have suggested.  Second, a new hymnal would mean giving the editors another bite at the apple to screw up our hymns, and I shudder at the thought of what they will come up with next.  The problem with normal, as Bruce Cockburn once said, is that it always gets worse.

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