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Thursday, May 05, 2011

Hymnals, Pt. 2: "The Great Hymn Massacre"

(This is meant as a footnote to Part 1, and a bit of an introduction to Part 3.)

In the 1730s, printer's apprentices in Paris rounded up all the stray cats they could find, put them on trial and convicted them of witchcraft. Then, with what appears to have been a great deal of joy, they beat them to death. because the cats were fed and even pampered by the printers, and the apprentices were not, the historian Robert Darnton has, famously, interpreted the "Great Cat Massacre" as a form of worker's protest.

We wonder what Darnton would make of the Great Hymn Massacre, which had taken place barely a century earlier, at the urging of Pope Urban VIII.

To make a long story short, Latin hymnody can be said to have begun with St. Ambrose, in the fourth century, to have developed gradually and ultimately to have exploded in the later Middle Ages. Ever conservative, the Roman rite was slow to accept the use of hymns; they seem to have worked their way in the side door, first coming to be established in other liturgical traditions, and especially in monastic communities. Still, even Rome will eventually recognize a good idea, and so by the 12th century (if not sooner), Latin hymns had taken their place in the Daily Office.

Of course, many of the hymns that the Roman rite inherited were old -- 800 years for the oldest -- and in a language that had changed significantly. During those centuries, Latin had gradually dissipated, transforming itself into a family of local vernaculars. And in the course of that dissipation, Latin had changed a great deal: pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar (in practice, if not in theory) all changed. So too did preferences in poetic meter, which gradually shifted from quantity to stress-accent. Not to mention the new love of rhyme. It was, and would long remain, the most commonly spoken and written of all second languages; but the Latin of Mortis, portis, fractis fortis was quite different from that of an Horatian ode.

It was inevitable, then, that the Renaissance revival of pagan antiquity would look askance at medieval Latin, and so it did. Adrian Fortescue describes two phases of this askance-looking:

First, there were the hymns written by humanistically-educated scholars. Of these, Fortescue says dismissively,

There came the time when no one could conceive anything but the classical metres and classical language. So they wrote frigid imitations of classical lyrics. It is the time when people thought it effective to call heaven Olympus, to apply pagan language to God and his saints. There is nothing to be done with this stuff but to glance at it, shudder, and pass on. ....

Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries people still wrote Latin hymns. They had become by now like the Latin verse of Oxford Dons, correct enough according to the rules (it seems as if their writers are conscious that correctness is all they can offer), correct, too, in sentiment, with here and there an ingenious little trick of ideas, an apt parallel or a clever inversion. But there is not a trace left of the feeling of Ambrose and Prudentius, not a spark of the fire nor a ray of the grace of old hymns.

Indeed, we may not hope for real Latin poetry any more, because Latin is now a dead language to all of us. However well a man may read, write, or even speak Latin now, it is always a foreign language to him, acquired artificially. It is no one's mother tongue. Does a man ever write real poetry in an acquired language ?

(Mind you, Fortescue never had a chance to read Nabokov.) But he saves his real anger for Urban the VIII and his Jesuit hatchet men:

In a fatal moment [Urban, the former Maffeo Barbarini] saw that the hymns do not all conform to the rules of classical prosody. Attempts to reform them had been made before, but so far they had been spared. Urban VIII was destined to succeed in destroying them. He appointed four Jesuits to reform the hymns, so that they should no longer offend Renaissance ears.

The four Jesuits were Famiano Strada, Tarquinio Galluzzi, Mathias Sarbiewski, Girolamo Petrucci. These four, in that faithful obedience to the Holy See which is the glory of their Society, with a patient care that one cannot help admiring, set to work to destroy every hymn in the office.

Perhaps this is an overstatement.  We aren't deeply enough versed in the matter to say.  But we have most certainly noticed, lately, that when we investigate the history of a great medieval hymn, there are typically two versions available:  the original, and the version mucked with by Urban's team.  Even a Latinist of the most limited ability can see that the originals are generally better, if by "better" we mean more exciting to read.  If by "better" one were to mean more regular in their classical meter and diction, then Urban would win.  But why would one?

For those who wish to examine this in more detail, Shawn Tribe offers a brief essay here at NLM. Perhaps it will suffice to observe that those religious communities which had the power to resist Urban's reforms did so -- including the Vatican basilica itself. Tribe's best line is lifted from one of Urban's contemporaries: Accessit Latinitas, recessit pietas -- Latin came in, piety went out.

For those of us who don't use a lot of Latin hymns in everyday worship, this may seem like trivia. And it more or less is. But many of us use use hymns -- many hymns -- that are translated from Latin originals, and from time to time we may want to investigate which "original" serves as the base text.

But this incident does raise some more abstract questions for modern worship leaders. Over nearly four centuries, Urban has been derided for his "improvements" to the inherited treasury of beloved hymns. By his own standards, the inverted commas are unnecessary: regularizing the meter and diction was an improvement. He and his team genuinely thought that they were making the hymnal better, by cutting it to pieces, rewriting it and angering the people who used and loved the hymns. Angering them, we note, so badly that even when the revised hymnal was recommended by the pope, those who could reject it did so.

So if you were the editor of a hymnal, would you learn a lesson from this? Not, apparently, if you were the brains behind the New Century Hymnal, the New English Hymnal, the Lutheran Book of Worship, or any of a dozen others published since the 1970s. As for the translation teams at ICET and so forth, it appears that they have been even less eager to learn. They have continued Urban's work, but on a larger scale -- involving many more hymns, and more dramatic changes in diction. And while they have done a great deal to advance their theological positions, with some of which we at the Egg are prone to agree, it is at least arguable that they have also alienated a significant portion of their original constituencies.

And then the questions for actual day-to-day leaders: Where do we stand? And where do the faithful stand? Some of us, to be sure, genuinely prefer the revised hymns. We find them easier to sing, more natural in their language and more contemporary in their theology. Others do not. Both sides, however, may do well to consider the needs of their congregations.

At the very least, we wish that somebody -- and ideally one of the large denominational publishing houses -- would make available, at a reasonable price, a hymnal containing songs that have not been altered, and that reflect the intention of their authors and translators. (We also wish that ELW had included among its ten versions of Holy Communion one -- one -- using the archaic English that still signals "church" many churchgoers. ) The sort of thinking reflected by this strategy might go a long way toward closing the rift that often seems to have grown up between denominational leaders and their memberships.

Finally, there is the most abstract of all questions: How will some social historian of the 2300s write up the First and Second Great Hymn Massacres? Was the first, under Urban VIII, truly a matter of snobbish classicism and nothing more, or does it reveal a deeper tension between the papal court and the communities which lay on the very fringes of papal power? And who won? Then, in the same vein, what is really going on in this endless mucking about with modern hymnals? What does it say that the mucking has intensified as the churches doing it have begun to dwindle? Do the editors truly not hear the howls of outrage that they routinely cause, or do they simply not care? And in either case, then if not, why not?


mark said...

Hark! Do I hear yet another plea for a Dover edition of the Common Service Book of the Lutheran Church?

Father Anonymous said...

That would be great, but what I really want is for you and/or my godson to start work on The Reference Hymnal.