Sunday, November 29, 2015

Come, thou Redeemer of the earth.

For the first Sunday of Advent, here is one of my favorite hymns of the season, "Come, thou Redeemer of the Earth." This hymn has its roots in a Latin hymn attributed to St. Ambrose of Milan, Veni Redemptor gentium, which was translated into English by John Mason Neale in the middle of the nineteenth century and set to music borrowed from another old Latin hymn, Puer nobis nascitur. (It also bears mentioning that the tune of Puer nobis nascitur reached nineteenth-century England through a seventeenth-century setting by Michael Praetorius, who is also responsible for one of my favorite Christmas carols.) Had I been ordained to the priesthood during Advent - a season traditionally seen as particularly propitious for ordinations - I almost certainly would have included "Come, thou Redeemer of the Earth" in the music of my first Mass; hopefully those who listen to the hymn will understand why.

The version of "Come, thou Redeemer of the Earth" featured here is performed by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, who are undisputed masters of this sort of music. If you want to follow along, here are the words:
Come thou Redeemer of the earth,
Come, testify thy wondrous birth:
All lands admire, all times applaud:
Such is the birth that fits our God.

Forth from His chamber goeth He,
That royal home of purity,
A giant in twofold substance one,
Rejoicing now His course to run.

From God the Father He proceeds,
To God the Father back He speeds;
Runs out his course to death and hell
Returning on God's high throne to dwell.

O equal to the Father, Thou!
Gird on Thy fleshly mantle now;
The weakness of our mortal state
With deathless might invigorate.

Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
And darkness breathe a newer light,
Where endless faith shall shine serene,
And twilight never intervene.

All laud eternal Son, to Thee;
Whose advent sets thy people free
Whom with the Father we adore,
And Holy Ghost, for evermore.

Good wishes to all in this time of preparation. AMDG.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

On Thanksgiving Day.

Today is American Thanksgiving; it's a regular business day here in Canada, but I'll be celebrating the holiday in a quietly festive manner tonight with other American expats. The content of this Thanksgiving post is admittedly recycled from items I've shared in previous years, but it strikes me that the best things are worth repeating. Given the climate of unpredictable violence and increasing uncertainty which many face today, holidays like Thanksgiving can provide a needed if temporary respite.

One of the essential features of Thanksgiving for me is Aaron Copland's 1944 ballet score Appalachian Spring, which I listen to every year on this day whether I'm home or abroad. As I've noted before, this is a distinctively American piece of music even though it may be difficult to explain exactly what makes it so beyond Copland's inclusion of a series of variations based on the nineteenth-century Shaker tune Simple Gifts. Given this work's status as an icon of musical Americana, it may seem odd that I have chosen to share an interpretation by an Australian ensemble, the Sydney Camerata, but great music belongs to the world.

To provide one more bit of Americana to mark the holiday, I invite you to again join me in reading Robert Frost's poem "The Gift Outright":
The land was ours before we were the land’s
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she will become.
To all readers celebrating this holiday, I wish a very happy and blessed Thanksgiving. AMDG.

Monday, November 09, 2015

René Girard and Gregorian chant.

French literary theorist René Girard died last week at the age of 91. Though I've read some of Girard's work during my studies in theology in Toronto, the news of his passing made me think not of his writings but of the one time I saw him in person, at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Palo Alto, California, where the longtime Stanford professor was a parishioner. Encountered on the steps of the church following the noon Mass, Girard's features were unmistakable - the distinctive nose and cheekbones, bushy eyebrows, and shock of white hair gave him away immediately, with the telltale rosette of the Légion d'honneur on the lapel of his blazer offering a reminder that this French expatriate was still deeply esteemed in his homeland.

Though he was a practicing Catholic who integrated theological concerns into his work, Girard's interest in liturgy and sacred music is little-known. Girard's public statements on liturgical questions were rare but telling: in 2006, for example, Girard joined a group of other French intellectuals in endorsing broader public celebration of the Tridentine Mass, something that became a reality the following year after Pope Benedict XVI released the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum. In an earlier interview with James G. Williams, published in The Girard Reader, Girard denied that he was "ritualistic" but nevertheless acknowledged his affection for Gregorian chant:
I am not really ritualistic. I pray, but I don't really enjoy ritual that much. I do enjoy the Gregorian Mass. We are lucky to have the Gregorian Mass at Stanford, thanks to William Mahrt, who has been devoted to it since 1963. I attend Mass every Sunday of course, as well as on the obligatory holy days. I am an ordinary Christian.
What Girard called the "Gregorian Mass" in this interview was not the older form of the Roman liturgy but rather the Novus Ordo celebrated in Latin with Gregorian chant, which has long been offered weekly in Palo Alto thanks to the dedication and effort of Professor William Mahrt and the St. Ann Choir. A leading chant scholar as well as a practitioner, Mahrt has written eloquently on the place of Gregorian chant in the Roman Catholic liturgy and lectures widely on topics related to sacred music. Having led the St. Ann Choir without interruption since the time of the Second Vatican Council, Mahrt's efforts have also received the attention of the secular media as well as plaudits from the Stanford community to which he belongs. René Girard may be gone, but Bill Mahrt's work happily continues - and hopefully will for a long time to come. AMDG.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Dies irae, dies illa.

As is now my annual custom, I am marking All Souls' Day by reposting a translation of the Latin sequence for All Souls that I made a few years ago. The translation below as well as my commentary are identical with what I have provided in years past; though I still hope to eventually revise and polish the translation, in the meantime I hope that my annual reposting of this text is helpful and edifying to some readers.

Attributed to the thirteenth-century Franciscan Thomas of Celano and long prescribed as part of the Latin Requiem Mass, the Dies Irae enjoys a special place in Western musical culture thanks to the memorable settings of the Requiem text by composers ranging from Mozart to Verdi to Britten, among many others. For All Souls, I typically avoid any 'classical' setting of the Dies Irae in favor of the traditional Gregorian setting, because some days when only chant will do - and for me this is one of those days.

Below you can find the Latin text of the Dies Irae followed by my own English translation. I decided to translate the text myself out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the various translations that I found online, as a spiritual exercise for All Souls' Day - and, finally, to practice my Latin. The translation was made in haste and could certainly be improved - indeed, I have sometimes thought of starting from scratch and doing a new one - and I welcome comments and criticism; my goal was to convey the sense of the original faithfully and in a style that flows well in English without trying to reproduce the poetic meter of the original. So here goes:

Dies irae! Dies illa
Solvet saeclum in favilla:
Teste David cum Sibylla!

Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando iudex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!

Tuba mirum spargens sonum
Per sepulchra regionum,
Coget omnes ante thronum.

Mors stupebit, et natura,
Cum resurget creatura,
Iudicanti responsura.

Liber scriptus proferetur,
In quo totum continetur,
Unde mundus iudicetur.

Iudex ergo cum sedebit,
Quidquid latet, apparebit:
Nil inultum remanebit.

Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus,
Cum vix iustus sit securus?

Rex tremendae maiestatis,
Qui salvandos salvas gratis,
Salva me, fons pietatis.

Recordare, Iesu pie,
Quod sum causa tuae viae:
Ne me perdas illa die.

Quaerens me, sedisti lassus:
Redemisti Crucem passus:
Tantus labor non sit cassus.

Iuste iudex ultionis,
Donum fac remissionis
Ante diem rationis.

Ingemisco, tamquam reus:
Culpa rubet vultus meus:
Supplicanti parce, Deus.

Qui Mariam absolvisti,
Et latronem exaudisti,
Mihi quoque spem dedisti.

Preces meae non sunt dignae:
Sed tu bonus fac benigne,
Ne perenni cremer igne.

Inter oves locum praesta,
Et ab haedis me sequestra,
Statuens in parte dextra.

Confutatis maledictis,
Flammis acribus addictis:
Voca me cum benedictis.

Oro supplex et acclinis,
Cor contritum quasi cinis:
Gere curam mei finis.

Lacrimosa dies illa,
qua resurget ex favilla
Judicandus homo reus.
Huic ergo parce, Deus:

Pie Iesu Domine,
dona eis requiem. Amen.


O day of wrath, that day
when the earth will be reduced to ashes,
as David and the Sibyl both testify!

What great fear there will be,
when the judge comes
to judge all things strictly.

A trumpet casts a wondrous sound
into the realm of the tombs,
calling all [to come] before the throne.

Death and nature will both marvel
as the [human] creature rises
to answer its judge.

A book will be brought forth
in which all things are recorded –
all that for which the world will be judged.

When, therefore, the judge appears,
all that is hidden will appear,
and no ills will remain unavenged.

As miserable as I am, what am I to say?
whose protection may I invoke,
when even the just lack security?

O most majestic King,
who freely saves those to be saved,
save me, source of mercy!

Remember, merciful Jesus,
that I am the one for whom you came:
may I not be lost on that day!

Seeking me, you sat down tired:
to redeem me, you suffered the Cross –
may your toil not be in vain!

Just and avenging judge,
may you grant remission [of sins]
before the day of reckoning.

Guilty, now I sigh,
my face red with shame:
save thy petitioner, o God!

Having absolved Mary [Magdalene],
and heard the plea of the thief,
may you give me hope as well.

Though my prayers are not worthy,
be kind to me, o Good One,
that I may be spared the eternal fire!

Place me among the sheep,
and separate me from the goats,
setting me at your right hand.

When the wicked are confounded
and given over to bitter flames:
call me among the blessed.

Meek and humble, I pray,
with a heart contrite as ashes:
Help me reach my final end.

How tearful that day will be,
when from the ashes will arise
the guilty man for judgment.
Therefore spare him, O God!

Merciful Lord Jesus,
grant them rest. Amen.

To some modern ears, some of the above lines may seem a bit harsh; the familiarity of the Latin text and the beauty of its poetic form can easily distract us from the admonitory content of the Dies Irae. As stern as these words may be, though, they also remind us that God is merciful - indeed, the very source of mercy - and they call on us to pray: first for our beloved dead and for our own repentance, but also that we may offer to others the same mercy that we seek for ourselves. May all of us who celebrate this Feast of All Souls take these words in the right way, and take them to heart. AMDG.