Advertise on ChoralNet 
ChoralNet logo
The mission of the ACDA is to inspire excellence in choral music through education, performance, composition, and advocacy.

Help with justifying choral music in languages other than English during traditional service

I am in my second year as choir director (adult and youth) at a Methodist church that does traditional worship at the services at which I am responsible.  Larger church, with a generally older congregation, and some issues at the church in general.   Out of the blue (after having done Brahms' Geistliches Lied, which we had just done on a concert involving the church choir), I got a message from the senior pastor that music during the worship service is to be done in English.  I raised concerns about the enormous body of rep that cuts off.  Can anyone suggest some firm backing to stand on (besides that it is right to include music from many styles and genres, including foreign languages) to try to redirect this decision?  Of course, if I am mandated to do this, I don't have much choice, but I think it a questionable decision.  Looking for some help here.
Replies (45): Threaded | Chronological
on November 13, 2010 5:08pm
Here's a previous forum thread on this topic.
on November 13, 2010 6:16pm
Hi Daniel -- you're smart to look for a way to work with your pastor, rather than just take a stand.  Have you asked him for his reasons?  My answers to the minister of the church, the choir and the congregation have been:
 
1) We sing music in other languages to feel more closely connected to those cultures through our worship of a common God.  One of Jesus' goals was clearly peace, which includes international relations.  We use the language in which the piece was written because that's how the composer was imagining the piece as it was written.
2) Depending on your church's preference, you can either put the translated text in the bulletin, or have a choir member (or other person) read the translation before the piece is sung -- be sure the congregation always knows what you're singing about.
3) Sometimes the music is not easy to understand, but the same is true of biblical passages.  If it is an extremely different piece, you might quickly introduce the congregation to one thing they can listen for -- like a rhythmic pattern or a motif.
 
Of course, you will need to address the concerns of your minister and work together toward a solution.  Using the above thinking, however,  our small church (choir of 12-16) has heard music in original language from Russia, Czech Republic, Rome, Spain & American Spanish-speaking countries, Germany, France, China, Japan, the Jewish nation, Zulu (South Africa), Taita (Kenya), India (Hindu) and of course, plenty of English/American.  I've not heard a complaint yet.  (Except, okay, maybe the choir's good-natured groans when a new piece of music arrives and it is in Abenaki (a native American tribe).
 
Best wishes --
Patricia
on November 13, 2010 6:22pm
Daniel:  Going back to the Council of Trent in the 16th century, there have often been mandates that the words should be clear to the congregation and that the music should not hide them.  In practice that means that it depends on your congregation and what it will accept, and on your clergy and what THEY will accept.
 
My own approach, subject to modification, is simple.  When music is performed as works of art, usually in a concert, it should be sung in the original language, which is part of the art form.  But when it is functional music it should be sung in the language of the listeners so they can understand and appreciate the thoughts, moods, and emotions.  Insisting on using original languages in a functional church service strikes me as going against those guidelines, although they are merely my personal guidelines.  For our wedding we had a Bach Wedding Cantata, but we did it in English for our families' sake.  That was a functional performance, not a concert performance.
 
So I might suggest that you examine your own perception of the place and purpose of music in your church.  You might change your mind.  But in any case, your clergy has the last word, because the buck stops there.  My late wife used music in original languages not all the time and not even often, but sometimes, with our clergy's and our congregation's approval.  But this was an Episcopal church in a university town, and no one ever seemed to object.  In fact they appreciated it.  I'm curious:  did you print a translation of the Brahms in the Service Bulletin?  That's what one does for a concert, no?
 
All the best,
John
 
on November 14, 2010 10:33am
Of course, the bottom line is that I have to do what I am told to do, but it will not be without some strong counterarguments on my part.  Ultimately it is the choice of those of those to whom I am responsible, as it is mine to decide whether or not that is a stipulation I can live with and look on to other pastures.  The Council of Trent I understand and know about, but in today's pluralistic society and melting pot of many languages and ethnicities, I still feel it very much a "chilling effect" to be limited by mandate to only things in English.  Very infrequently are English translations any more than singing translations i the loosest sense, in my experience, for example, the Peters edition of the Brahms' Geistliches Lied  English "translation" is quite removed from the original text and does not do justice to it.  I guess, in hindsight, I am most troubled that this decision was made without any of my input, as the choral music professional, with almost 15 years of church music experience in several different settings and nearly a DMA in music completed!
on November 14, 2010 7:13pm
Daniel:  I hear what you're saying and understand it.  And you make a very important point--no, TWO very important points.  The first is that you should have been included in the decision that came from your clergy, and no one here will argue against THAT!
 
But the second is well worth thinking about, for ALL of us.  Yes, English translations are often less than faithful to the original, not just in the scansion and emphases but in the failure to be able to include the subtexts that some phrases or words suggest in the original.  But does that mean that we, as choral directors, should NEVER sing translations?
 
It seems to me that it means something quite different.  When we decide to sing a translation (and I've already spoken to my feelings about that), we have to keep in mind that we are then presenting the work AS IT IS TRANSLATED and not necessarily the work as it originally existed.
 
I was once told, by a grad student who did some translations for me, that to make a good translation it was necessary to be both fluent and a poet in both languages, and I believe that is true.  Some very beautiful translations from the Latin have been made in both the Lutheran and Anglican traditions, but they are translations that have stood the test of time and have taken on their own sets of meanings and subtexts.  To find examples of the opposite, just take a look at any quick and dirty translation of an opera libretto--or worse yet, some of the ham-handed "gender-correct" translations of standard hymns by folks who are definitely non-poets!!!
 
All the best in working things out with your situation.  Sometimes it can be done, and sometimes it can't.
 
John
on December 24, 2010 11:50am
Daniel,
You might want to take a look at a book by C. Michael Hawn (Southern Methodist University) entitled Gather Into One. He puts forth some arguments about why singing and hearing music in another language may NOT be the alienating thing that I'm presuming your minister may think it is. He also talks about the biases and prejudices surrounding language in the church. 
 
Hawn, whose research involves the music of the world in both their indigenous and in transplanted settings, argues that music from around the world (and in this I think the case could be made to include European classics in original languages) can "broaden the ways we pray and sing together in corporate worship." While this may be especially relevant if your church membership is comprised from a variety of cultural backgrounds, or if the church is located in an area that is culturally diverse, I also think the arguments can be made for monocultural congregations -  as a way to understand worship as something humans need to do to become closer to God and to each other.
 
Another resources you may want to check for related arguments is Trouble at the Table by Carol Doran and Thomas H. Troeger. John Bell's The Singing Thing may also shed some light to help you think through both your goals for music in your church setting, and to understand the resistance you are feeling from the minister. 
 
All the best to you as you sort through this issue for yourself and for the congregation you serve.
on November 14, 2010 11:16am
Daniel - I have to take a somewhat different tack than John did.  What was the first event in the Church's history as an "organized" religion?  Pentecost!  And what are we told in Acts?  That all heard what these (generally) unlettered men had to say "in their own tongue."  That has to tell us two things:
 
1.  Yes, the Word of God must be knowable in our own tongue, otherwise we cannot know Him.  However, that's the minister's primary responsibility.
 
2.  We are all called to go forth into the world to preach the Good News.  That means that we have to learn other people's languages and, yes (gasp!), even something about their culture - and the requirement isn't limited just to the people up front in church on Sunday mornings.  One of my choristers pointed out rather sharply to me that the final hymn of Mass shouldn't be announced as the "closing" hymn, but rather the hym of "sending forth."  For me it was something of a semantic distinction, but then I realized she was right - we ARE called to "be sent forth" and sometimes to do so in other than comfortable ways.
 
I DO, however, agree that the final decision is the pastor's - but he could do a better job of explaining what his concerns are and inviting your input.  (Always seems to be the way, isn't it; the pastor decides and doesn't include the person who has to deal with the decision in the process.  Wouldn't things work better if we just consulted a little more?)   I would recommend that you keep some of our comments (all three so far) in your pocket for the conversation.  And I have to wonder if this isn't a classic case of cultural superiority at root - and an excessive conservatism and settling into a personal "comfort zone" on his part.  You may have to "negotiate" a way to expand the language issue by simply suggesting some ways it can very gradually be introduced (because here you ARE right - there is far too much of spiritual value that is being cut off - take anything by Byrd in Latin as a for instance) - first English, then perhaps Latin, then perhaps either French, Italian, or German; do a little printup of the translation of the text for insertion into the bulletin, that sort of thing.
 
Good luck - let us know what happens.
 
Ron Duquette
Director of Music
Catholic Community, Ft. Belvoir, VA
on November 15, 2010 1:57pm
HI Daniel,
 
There is no question but that the clergy have the last word. 
 
That said it would be a courtesy to be told why thay are taking such a position and to have been brought in on a discussion of the matter.  You make it sound like you have been handed a diktat, which is hardly the most diplomatic way of working. Nor is it respectful.  Even so, there may be the best of reasons for the decision.  Many good and wise points have been made earlier in the thread, so all I can do is hope that you can at the very least  find out how far the limitation extends.  Personally I would find it intolerable if it extended beyond services into the field of concerts.
 
The choir of the cathedral I used to attend before I moved to France would, on occasion, sing the Geistliches Lied as a post-communion piece.  The text was always given in German and English on the service sheet, so there was no question of the congregation not having access to what was being sung.  I always found it an elevating anthem, so I am saddened that this is the one that seems to have brought about your Angst.  [There,  I've used a German word!  :) ]  But equally their repertoire included pieces in many other languages from Church Slavonic to Irish Gaelic.  I'm not aware that the congregation was ever put out by this.  Rather, I think the choir was one of the great attractions for many of other denominations and none.  In this way, I would argue it was carrying out a ministry of its own. 
 
To evaluate properly your position, though, I think you do need to get more information.
 
The best of luck.
 
David
on November 17, 2010 7:48pm
Your “out of the blue” experience tells me there was a lack of communication.  The pastor probably felt you sprung German “out of the blue” on him.  His response:  “English only!”  Your response: “Yes, sir!”   His decision was arbitrary and uninformed.  But, you’re partly responsible.  Sorry!
 
This is a familiar problem.  My own came with Bach’s Christ lag in Todesbanden.  Someone complained about my making the choir sing German.  The pastor interrupted my second rehearsal and said “English only!”  I was defensive.  Mightily! (We did it in English.)  But, it was my fault.  If I had run it by him before I bought the scores, neither of us would have been hit “out of the blue”.    
 
Very few pastors have had formal musical training.  When you  plan something extraordinary, like using another language, you need to meet with your pastor.  Do your homework and explain yourself and the music to him as carefully as you can!  You may still end up having to sing everything in English; but, perhaps not always.  (Latin?)
 
We believe what we've been taught: "The original language is best ... for the music." You'll get no argument from your colleagues on that.  But, what's best for our audience, a congregation, a worship experience?  Is the original text always better?  Really?  How do you overcome the language barrier?  Those are challenging questions.
 
(You must have a choir that loves you.  Brahms Opus 30 is a challenge, German or English. Bravo!  Keep pushing the envelope!   Just plan ahead and keep your eyes open!)    
on November 18, 2010 8:15pm
Hi Daniel --
  As I reread the thread, I realized that in your position, my greatest concern would be approaching the senior pastor, and in a cooperative manner, determining the proper lines of decision-making and establishing a trusting, friendly relationship.  If he/she learns to trust you through a myriad of other decisions, you may be able to revisit the language question.  Best of luck to you --
Patricia
on November 19, 2010 5:36am
May I humbly suggest that you might be wrong?  The pastor is obviously communicating the feeling of the congregation.  Isn't the entire purpose of your job to enhance the worship experience of the congregation?  Follow his lead; it isn't about you, it's about the parishoners.  I love singing in other languages, particularly Latin, but our congregation is bored to tears and end up talking and texting and reading the bulletin--one exception was a large church in Florida where the subtitles in English were projected on a screen--that did work beautifully!  But the needs of the congregation come first, always.  Anne
on December 21, 2010 1:30pm
I would remind him of the "open minds, open hearts, open door" policy of the Methodist Church and that it is discriminatory to exclude pieces based on language.  It would further promote narrow mindedness in the congregation.  I would add the translation to the bulletin or have someone orate it at the start of the anthem.  Sometimes you have to educate the pastor about original language is best (may also have to educate your congregation).  Put a note in the monthly newsletter about how much easier it is to sing a piece in its original language, etc.  Good luck.
on December 23, 2010 4:09pm
It seems to me that there are two issues here: first, the lauguage issue of the music, and second, the leadership style of the pastor. The second one is easy to deal with, at least in concept: cooperate or get a new job with a more collegial pastor (it's often NOT easy to get a new job, nor cooperate with authority, especially if you are in disagreement). The first issue, dealing with the nature of music in worship, is a bit more complicated, and requires a clear vision of what you wish to accomplish in your music making during worship.

I almost always disagree with one poster above, but in this case, I think they are right: Church music has a different, and much narrower mission and purpose than does concert music or music for entertainment. If the Pastor's vision for worship (or local custom) is liturgical, then the music must fulfill, above all, the narrow assignment given for liturgical music. It is very difficult to get the average US congregation to listen and/or sing, and thus participate "fully, actively, consciously" in both an interior and exterior manner if there is a language barrier.

Translations in the bulletin help some, as do recitations of the translated text before hand, or overhead projections, but these may conflict with the overall vision of worship the pastor has. Overhead projections require special equipment and persons to operate them, not to mention a suitable architectural design that enhances the worship experience, and does not detract from it.

I have been doing both concert and liturgical music now for nearly four decades. Up until about 10 years ago I was firmly convinced that to perform, say a Bach Cantata, or a piece by Brahms, in any other language than its original, would do irreparable harm to the music, and render it useless as an evangelical tool, or component of worship. Although I would never do Bach, Schütz or Brahms for that matter in anything but the original language for a concert (even a concert in a church), I find that the liturgical purpose of the music, be it accompaniment to ritual, ritual itself, or ritualized communal action, requires understandibility by all who participate.

For my ministry I was forced to come up with some better translations for Bach Cantatas, other than what the publisher (in our case, Carus Verlag of Stuttgart) provided. That was definitely a huge challenge, but worth the effort. The overall gain of undertandibility and interior participation by our "audience" far outweighed the slight loss of symbolic content, what I once thought irreparable. In many cases, cognates helped solve even that problem.

It took many, many years to come around to this way of thinking, but I doubt I can go back to performing in church in a language unknown to the people (other than the basic Latin and Greek texts of the Mass, for instance, translation of which most Catholics know...we hope). The feeling of gratitude, accomplishment, profit brought about by people absorbing interiorly what we sang, is far greater than authenticity for the sake of the music, and its supposed power of expression in its original language. That power of expression was certainly not diminished under my watch.

I don't think any repertoire has to be eliminated, based on language.

There are plenty of well regarded churches of all denominations in the US and elsewhere, that do not follow this type of thinking, and perform, say, Bach Cantatas in the orginal language, much to the great benefit of their congregations. Emmanuel Church in Boston, MA comes to mind. But in those cases, the local custom, tradition of many decades, has become the norm.

I would advise you to examine the work of Craig Hella Johnson with his Conspirare group. It seems he finds that language (and cultural) barriers are too great even in the arena of concert music, and has through the years devised novel ways of programming to help his audiences "get it." No doubt, some purists are perturbed, but I certainly can see where he is coming from (and I speak fluent German, pretty good Italian, Spanish, and French, and have a wide knowledge of the Vulgate and other Latin chants in the standard choral repertory).

For the problem about your Pastor's leadership style: decide if the job is worth keeping, or if it is too much trouble to do without, or find another job. If that is the case, then figure out what you need to do to get along, and do so -- at least until you can make a move.

For the problem about language of music in worship: decide what your community needs, based on their local tradition, the vision of the pastor for worship, and the needs and abilities of your choir. For Bach and Brahms, I would definitely recommend starting with the published English and tweaking it to get as close to the original, using cognates as often as possible, taking care on word order, etc, trying, trying, In then end, if you lose some musical moments, the overall proclamation of message, of "good news" will be the thing that rewards, and you will find it most rewarding, indeed.

on December 25, 2010 3:11pm
This really should be a non-issue.  If you prepare your congregation for the use of foreign languages and let them know why it is important ... above are many reasons listed ... being part of the church universal is most important, and reminding our folk that the Holy Writ was not given in KIng James English, or the NRSV even!  That folk around the world celebrate the same faith we do, and people from times and places far distant from ours.  I have always found the easiest answer for this is to print side=by-side translations in the service leaflet.  It keeps the congregation involved.  You can use the monthly Newsletter of your parish to explain the reasons for trying foreign language texts, and ask them for some understanding of this practice.  Also, with a wealth of superb English language choral music available, this should not be a weekly practice.  But from time to time, it adds variety and interest to the service.  It's most appropriate on days like Pentecost or World Communion Sunday in October when we celebrate the worldwide church.  Other times are fair game too if you prepare and get your clergy on board.  ALthough I know there is some disagreement on this, church music is music for a purpose and not absolute music.  It needs to contribute to the worship and liturgy, and if it does not, it is best to use the vernacular.  Each congregation has it's own ethos with this issue, but I do think if you properly prepare them for what will happen ... in written form, perhaps by visiting church school classes to explain the practice, you might find this both acceptable and somthing people look forward to having happen. 
 
This, is, however, a long, long discussion.  From early times ... the Renaissance to be exact, there have been discussions about being able to understand choral music when sung.  Palestrina's music came into being because the Pope decided that even in polyphony, texts must be understood.  In today's amateur choral groups in churches, even when English is sung, it is seldom truly understandable!  BUt it continues to be an inssue, and working it through with grace and understanding that it is not a new issue could be very helpful.  Don't give up on a perfectly good church if the only prohibition is on foreign language music.  I have a friend who in the 1960's introduced great choral music to a large Baptist congregation in Atlanta.  I still have a beautiful recording he made of the "Communion in G" of Franz Schubert!!!!  And it is a fine performance.  WOuld it be nicer in Latin ... sure, but this was the way he got it sung, and many more wonderful things followed ... some in translations, but some like the RVW "Hodie" at Christmas and huge English=text works that would not have been possible had he not done that Schubert in English to get things going.  Patience and understanding of the issue is very important here. 
 
on December 25, 2010 6:53pm
Hi, Thomas.  Just a small nit to pick, to keep the history accurate.  Palestrina did NOT change his style to meet the requirements of the Council of Trent, and his "Pope Marcellus Mass" was NOT the demonstration piece for the Council as often cited.  I think the piece was actually by Jacob Kerl, but I'd have to look it up to be sure.  And it was not the Pope who made the ruling about texts being understood, but the Council of Trent (although in any dictatorship one assumes that the head guy's wishes are observed and reflected in committee decisions).
 
Palestrina was, however, commissioned to oversee a revision of the official chant books to accord with the Council's wishes, a task completed after his death that led to the infamous and rather poorly-researched "Medici" edition.
 
All the best,
John
on December 25, 2010 3:53pm
My first inclination to say is:  Change churches.  Since that probably isn't an option, two points to consider:  1) if the work is from a Latin Mass, then the original language is usually (but not always) the best.  Other texts, consider good translations.  Good translations usually require that the choral director have somewhat a working knowledge of the language to determine whether in fact it is a good one; or the choral director can employ someone in the congregation (choir member?) or outside of the community to go over the translation and determine its worth, or improve upon it. 
  The point above about Reformation ideals is well taken.  Germans prefer works performed in the vernacular, as do other cultures. 
  The other suggestion is providing a good translation in the bulletin, or having the translation read, as suggested in this thread.  Other than that, good luck in working with that minister!  Sounds as if a knowledge of music is not his (her?) strong suite. 
on December 26, 2010 10:25am
Quick question: Why must we assume that because there is a disagreement with the Pastor that it is HIS leadership problem and not ours? I often read these types of comments in responses to questions dealing with disagreements, when quite frankly, they are just disagreements. The problem might very well be our own.
 
I would ask that you, as the director, examine why you would prefer to do languages other than English? I understand the body of repertoire argument, but this isn't a concert choir or a school choir. The primary purpose of the church choir is to authentically edify our Lord in worship. Our primary audience is Him. I think it's important to lead worship in a way that is true to who you are as a congregation. If you are in a community where German is spoken frequently, then it would be appropriate in my mind to sing an anthem every now and then in German. I think it's a greater issue if the congregation can't understand what you are singing about. Many choirs will print the texts in their bulletins when they're doing an English piece for this reason.
 
Another consideration is the effect this may have on any seekers that may attend your service. Seekers being those who are investigating faith and have chosen to attend your service looking for answers about who God is. If a church service in general (not just the anthem) isn't understandable to them (they must be able to at least follow along even if they don't have all the theological answers) then they may never to step into a church (at least your church) again. 
 
We approach our church choir as a way to enhance the message of the day as spoken through the pastor. To help the spoken word hit home more deeply for those who hear it. We won't program a piece just because it's a nice piece and we certainly won't program a piece for it's historical value (unless it has something to do with the message of the day). 
 
In the end, I would make this less about the body of rep and more about the choir as a tool for life transformation that is possible through worship. 
 
Blessings to you.
Aaron McCullough
Director of Worship and Group Ministries
St. Luke Lutheran Church
Columbus, OH
on December 26, 2010 9:18am
Aaron:  Thank you so much for pointing out the obvious:  a religious service is not a concert!  As functional music, its first criterion is communication, and without that nothing else matters.
 
We had an organist for a while who considered our services her opportunity to show off her skill.  Our priest did not agree, and she was soon gone.
 
I'll say it once again for emphasis:  A service is not a concert.  Anyone who disagrees is, I would suggest, in the wrong business.  That doesn't mean we shouldn't try to be as good as we possibly can be; anything less is disrespect for the gifts we've been lucky enough to receive.  But it does mean that the message is more important than the messenger.
 
All the best,
John
on December 26, 2010 4:13pm
I agree that a vital purpose of music in worship is to enhance the message, but I see this as an incomplete view of the reason we have music in worship at all. If enhancing the message were the only purpose or even the primary purpose, then we would speak the text without music, or still use simple Gregorian chant, or use only soloists who can be more easily understood, or just read the text.
 
Choral music in worship is an offering, and we should offer our best; this is directly related to the quality of the music. When I sing in worship, I have no intention to show off, but I feel that I have not offered very much if I can sightread the piece or have not worked to be the best that I can be. Again, this is directly related to the quality of the music.
 
on December 26, 2010 7:12pm
Hi, Lee.  Indeed, one CAN simply speak the texts without music.  It's very common in the Roman Catholic church, and it's called a Low Mass.  Possibly the most common form.
 
But this is a discussion that is rather ancient, and that comes up again and again in the history of church music.  The early church fathers were quite ambivalent about whether or not music even belonged as part of workship, and wrote very well on both sides of the question.  (I use the Strunk "Source Readings in Music History" to establish the background for my Early Music Literature class, and it is quite an eye-opener for many students with little knowledge of the history of their own churches.)
 
Obviously the use of music won out for the Church in general, although music was always considered an option and not a requirement (and the elaborate polyphony we love so much was NOT in everyday use, or ever heard in small parish churches).
 
But the question came back up in the early 16th century, with the Protestant Reformation.  Luther and King Henry (who agreed on very little else) agreed that music should remain an important part of worship.  Ulrich Zwingli, in one part of Switzerland, decided differently and banned music in the churches under his control, even though he was as much a musician as Luther.  Jean Calvin, in another part of Switzerland, took a middle course, allowing the singing of Psalms but no other music and no polyphonic settings in his services.
 
And in one sense, the question is now up for discussion once again, but in relation to the Contemporary Christian and Praise Bands that have infiltrated so many churches these day.  And THAT is something that is ongoing and yet to be worked out. 
 
But other than that small history lesson, I can see that you and I are very much in agreement.
 
All the best,
John
on December 26, 2010 6:57pm
I'm back once more, Daniel, to respond to John's apparent reluctance to sing in the original language if the music is serving a functional purpose.  What is the purpose music serves in the church?  Your specific church?  Perhaps the reason I get such a positive response from the congregation to our music (mix of maybe 70% English, 30% other languages) is that my first concern is always what is this music meant to do?  Calm and center?  Expand horizons?  Increase energy?  Mesmerize?  Tell a story?  Repeat the psalm, deepening understanding of that reading?  Send people out with joy?  Consider a theological point?  Anyway, you get the idea.  
 
Then I look for the right piece, and if happens to be in another language, we use it, with an accurate, poetic translation given in print and read before hand.  
 
Functional doesn't =  uses English.
 
I know all about the council of Trent (1564) and the disputed polyphony clarity question of Palestrina's (c.1525-1594).  I find it strange that we refer back to the Council of Trent, but not the Inquisition, extended into Portugal in 1531 by Pope Leo X.  Obviously our awareness of cruelty had changed by the mid-1800s, when the Inquisition's authority was finallyt ended.  Why can't our awareness of how the combination of music and words communicate with us change too from the 1600s?  Translations matter; giving the most effective possible presentation of a piece matters.  Our congregation itself has learned a song in Spanish and one in Zulu.
 
John, I read your comments all over on ChoralNet, and I highly respect your thoughts.  I hope you will reconsider the language question.
 
Thank you -
Patricia
on December 27, 2010 3:03am
Hi, Patricia.  I'm afraid that I have to plead flexibility.  It isn't so much "reluctance to sing in the original language if the music is serving a functional purpse" as it is wanting to take a very close look at what functional purposes are, and judging by your list of possibilities it looks as if we are largely in agreement.
 
I would posit that in most cases, the words spoken or sung during a church service are believed to have relevance to the service and the lesson of the day.  *IF* a printed translation will do that job and not just be a distraction, then I have no objection to original languges.  But that question was settled for Protestant churches almost 5 centuries ago, when Latin was generally dropped in favor of vernacular translations.  (OK, only about half a century ago in the Roman Catholic church, which moves rather slowly at times.)
 
But as I've commented previously, my wife actually did use music in other languages than English from time to time with her youth choir, with the approval (always important!) of the clergy, and rather often to the delight of the congregation.  She also had them sing an Appalachian tune with appropriate style and vowel modifications on occasion, to good effect.  The point, I think, is that neither she, her singers, nor our clergy ever treated the services as occasions for concert music.
 
I apologize for failing to see the relevance of the Inquisition for a discussion of church music, but would be interested to see your reasoning.
 
I still feel that IN GENERAL and FOR THE MOST PART, functional music should be understandable by the audience/congregation, while music presented as works of art should more often keep to the original language, since it is indeed part of the music.  AND the expectations and comfort level of the audience/congregation is also important.
 
All the best,
John
on December 27, 2010 2:51pm
Hi Patricia, I can't speak for John, but I can tell you that all of your reasons stated above do not require liturgy or worship, and can all be achieved in the context of a concert.
on December 27, 2010 12:21pm
Dear friends, I think our modern emphasis on functionality is understandable, but short-changes the real value that singing offers us. If you have the patience for it, I offer my thoughts in a blog post from last year, following the Haiti earthquake, and the rescue of a woman trapped for several days:
 
Images and stories from a shaken neighbor have flooded our senses and united our benevolence for the last few days. We imagine that we are powerful beyond measure, and we expect to control our world. When that fails we elect someone else. Then a natural disaster demonstrates that sometimes it is our impotence that knows no bounds. During these times there is a chance that, if we keep our eyes and ears open, we might observe something that is deeply true.

Last week our church choir's schedule called for the singing of a new arrangement of the hymn, "How Can I Keep from Singing." During our rehearsal we discussed the role of singing in our lives. It is easy to relate singing to superficial emotion. We sing for joy when we are happy, we sing for sadness when our heart is broken. But in most of our lives, these emotions happen for reasons that are not life-changing. They are real, but we are able to move beyond them quickly. Then we see unimaginable destruction and grief, and we find that we are without words. We see news reporters choked by the lumps in their throats. We see physicians coolly striving to save lives in primitive conditions, then falling apart when they speak about their efforts. We see mothers and fathers screaming for their children, and orphans pulled from far below the earth.

In our rehearsal discussion, we talked about the slaves who worked in the cotton fields near the spot of our suburban Alabama church. Expected to toil in the Alabama sun anytime it was in the sky, they found a way to put one foot in front of the other, and to express themselves to one another, even though they had been forced to come from different tribal and language groups in Africa, and only had pigment and captivity in common. The way they communicated their anguish, hopes and plans for escape was by singing.

Their grandchildren faced laws designed to keep them a secondary class of citizens, without the rights to vote, advance economically, or even drink and eat near the grandchildren of their ancestors' captors. When they joined hands to walk in protest, they sang.
 
When Jewish people from all over Europe were forced into concentration camps, their diagnosis became terminal. But at the Terezin Camp, those who remained met in a basement around a piano that had no legs, and a leader taught them the choral parts of the Requiem by Giuseppe Verdi. When they performed it, the Nazis touted the concert as evidence of their benign treatment of happy captives. They didn't realize that the Jews were singing the Christian liturgy of death toward them, not for them.

And last week a lot of attention was paid to 69-year old Ena Zizi, who burst into song as she was pulled from the wreckage of the Cathedral in Port-au-Prince. She had laid under twelve feet of rubble, praying for nine days. When she came into the light she provided her own soundtrack.

These anecdotes demonstrate the deepest purpose of singing. Words are not enough, once the circumstances of life become overwhelming. Whether a heartbroken teenager listening to the top 40, or a grown-up living through an unimaginable torment, people are ill-equipped to express themselves through language alone. Singing allows more of our thoughts to be seen by others. It allows us to order our chaotic thoughts. These are the times when we "see through a glass darkly," and singing sheds light.

When we claim that school music is important because it relates to mathematics, or that hymn singing in church is important because it conveys theology, we short-change the value of the musical expression. Theology requires 500 pages to cogently express the experience of the slave who sings, "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child." A world-class theological conference would be required to derive verbal expression for the experience of the Jew who sings to the Nazi, "Day of wrath, that day will dissolve the world in ashes...When therefore the judge will sit, whatever hides will appear, nothing will remain unpunished." A sermon would be confounded to attempt to express the experience of Ena Zizi, who had prayed alone for days, and then couldn't help singing.

The purpose of singing is not to set words to music. It is to take up where the words leave off, delving deeper into the human experience and our need to express it.

My life flows on in endless song above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the real though far off hymn that hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife I hear its music ringing.
It sounds an echo in my soul; how can I keep from singing?
 
Just my thoughts...let's don't short-change the value of beauty. It is reason enough to worship.
 
Happy New Year!
 
Terre Johnson  
 
 
 
on December 27, 2010 1:27pm
We do sing music in Latin frequently, German occasionally, Swahili and Spanish (hymns), French (rarely, but we will do the Fauré Cantique in French).  Translations are always printed in the bulletins for anthems and special music in church, including the the music we sing in English, so that the congregation can absorb the texts more thoroughly, and not be dependent entirely on the clarity of words from the choir (or what might be obliterated through kid noise, etc.) .  Mostly, it is so that what happens in our worship is knit together in the texts....related to the lessons, seasonal themes, etc.  I would prefer to give an accurate translation of a poem in another language than sing some less well constructed poem that is contrived to fit the music that isn't as accurate and probably less good.  Our congregation is probably more intellectually oriented than most, though, being in a university area.  I would say that education of all kinds is pretty well encouraged here and for that reason, I really haven't  heard any comments against singing in other languages, except for prior to our printing words in the bulletins when that was requested.  I used to give the translations orally, just before we sang, but the written words were/are much preferred.  And we do have people who natively speak or have a strong other language background that especially  enjoy the language of the church in another tongue, at least from time to time.
 
If we were required to sing in English only, there would be many anthems we would not sing.  I would probably make a plea for being able to include on occasional anthem in another language.  I think getting the bits of other language texts here and there help us to think of the texts involved in a new way.  There is metaphoric language that we miss in English only texts (meaning that the metaphors of other languages translated into English give us a peek at something we would miss otherwise) that help us to grow in our faith and understanding.  I will never forget overhearing a German speaking woman in our choir translating word by word the last chorus of the St. John Passion for another choir member last year, and the image I had was of a child sitting at the feet of Jesus learning from him.  The texts were amazing when taken apart in that way.  
 
Practically speaking, if you can find a hymn text that comes from another language and can find a way to build a worship experience around that text (sing it in the original language and in English), you might find a way to open that language door that is palatable to your pastor ad congregation.  I think that would be your best chance.  Otherwise, you might have  hard time being persuasive. And maybe you won't have any luck, anyway.  
 
I do have a  choir member who resists singing in any other language than English, but for the most part, the choir really enjoys the language experience, the chance to learn and grow.
 
Nan Beth Walton
on December 27, 2010 7:57pm
quote
 "...speak the texts without music. It's very common in the Roman Catholic church, and it's called a Low Mass...".
 
Yes, more or less...
Since 1962/63 we Catholics, Roman and Ambrosian Liturgy, celebrate no low and no high mas; We celebrate an only HOLY MASS.
No more Low; no more High. Simply "HOLY Mass". That's... when there is a lot of music, when there is some music and when there is no music at all. All texts are read at high and clear voice. (I read in such way the texts in my Community/Parrocchia).
We no more have a low God or a High God to praise and to honour and to pray!
Sorry to remind that we had a Pope John XXIII and a Pope Paul VI who promoted and realized a... "tiny" event called "Concilio Ecumenico Vaticano Secondo" ...AND we had almost 50 years of evolution (with John Paul I, John Pauk II and Benedict XVI) since the times I was a "chierichetto"  (Do you say "Altar boy"? I used to get up at least at 6 o'clock each morning, each season [my village is 1100 m. up in the mountains!] to go and "serve the Mass"), the same times Mr Howell refers to.
Giorgio
 
on December 28, 2010 10:37am
Giorgio - You're quite right that officially there is no distinction made since the Second Vatican Council between a "low" or a "high" Mass - but please note I write "officially."  Effectively, there is STILL that distinction - that Mass with no or very little music (and what there is not being sung) is IN EFFECT a Low Mass; when there is a great deal of music, it is IN EFFECT a High Mass; and whatever happens when there is not a great deal or too little music is...well, something else.
 
Were you to come to the community I serve as the de facto Director of Music, you'd find that the 7:30 a.m. Sunday Mass is, effectively, a Low Mass - even though there is as much music there as at any other Mass.  What makes it a "Low" Mass (the former "missa lecta") is the response (or lack of it, more accurately) by the worshipers.  It's a reality; not desirable, but what happens.  We try to aim the music to encourage them to sing - but we're not going to cram it down their throats.  Oh, and for any of you readers out there, we have tried to incorporate music from their youth - many of them being retirees at this Mass - as well as music they'd've heard as adults - and it doesn't make any difference - because they grew up when the business of making music at church was the choir's business.  And when did we hear a choir?  At the "High" Mass (which, in far too many people's experience, was to be avoided like the plague because.....?  It lasted an hour, as opposed to being over in 35-40 minutes....sigh).
 
So this, too, Giorgio, is one of the realities we continue to deal with here in America, even 50 years after Vatican II.  And in the Catholic Church in America, the situation was even (and remains, in my opinion) more difficult than in Europe or elsewhere - because, culturally, we had been led by our clergy to think of music in church not only as an option exercised only on special days, but because our liturgy was somehow superior, to not "need" music to worship.  (A further discussion on this is found in Tom Day's book, "Why Catholics Can't Sing".)  It is this cultural distaste in the Catholic Church in America that has led, in my opinion, to the overall uneven state of music within the Church here.
 
Ron
on December 28, 2010 12:37pm
Thanks for those of you who have taken the time to respond, at length, in some cases.  I can certainly see both sides of the textual coin, so to speak.  And, to clarify, I have spent some 15 years in church positions, but this is only my second year at this current one, which can make a difference in terms of church "politics" or whatever term one would like to use.  I guess one of my biggest initial responses was that this is a decision that seemed to be arrived at with no input from me, the choral music professional on staff,  and I think one's response in most cases to that process is negative!
 
Peace,
Dan
on December 28, 2010 1:15pm
Dan, thanks to you for opening this Pandora's Box and letting us all contribute. The "political" angle of this is quite interesting, and I don't blame you for your frustration. I've been surprised that more posters haven't reacted negatively to your pastor's methodology. I have to say that I've spent most of the last 35 years in churches big and small, and can't remember a pastoral edict delivered in quite that fashion. So I am in agreement with you about the inappropriateness of it. It seems a little ridiculous for any of us who don't know the personalities involved to give specific advice. I do think that the church's decision to have a staff position in music gives all the evidence necessary to make the case that you are within your job description when you make musical decisions. To those posters who have said, in so many words, "the pastor has the final say," I would suggest that the church has already chosen a different path. If it were possible for the pastor to make the musical decisions and carry them out, the church would not have chosen to have a musical professional on the staff. I think it's more truthful to say, "the pastor has the weightier opinion, and isn't reluctant to throw his weight around." Knowing that we all must choose our battles carefully, I have no doubt that your  original post indicated the importance of the issue for you, and the need to decide whether this is the battle you choose to fight. I offer my best wishes, and hopes for good will within the church and among the church staff. Repertoire is the heart and soul of what we do throughout the choral world, and you are completely right to see this as an important issue, both from the standpoints of staff relationships and of repertoire choices.
 
Best wishes,
 
Terre Johnson
on December 28, 2010 3:38pm
Terre,
 
I think you may be articulating what some are thinking - on some level, at least.  I would not care to find myself in that position,  OTOH, I do not have the direct experience that Dan has had, so I play this one carefully and safely.  Besides, as Dan recognises, every coin has two sides.
 
Since I do not know the Pastor in question, nor have I personal acquaintance with Dan it is a difficult situation.  It seems that he has been given a diktat, which cannot make for easy working relations with his clergy.  On the other hand, he has 15 years of experience in church positions, so he is hardly a novice to many different kinds of personalities and situations in churches.  Probably the last thing that a church musician wants is to be bullied by anyone, but also someone in who is working in a church milieu does have to make some concessions, regardless of the position he/she holds.
 
The bottom line, though, if agreement cannot be reached amicably, is the 'he who pays the piper calls the tune'.  Better to get even an uncomfortable agreement or working arrangement than the repultation of being 'difficult'.  At lease in that way future avenues of work are not being closed off, even though it may not be easy.
 
 
David.
on December 29, 2010 12:16pm
Here we go again...blame the pastor. This type of thinking bothers me to no end: "I don't get MY way so it's HIS/HER fault!" - come on. 
 
Take a lesson from Dale Carnegie - seek to understand before being understood. 
 
An example from my experience: Problem - I want my Pastor to plan out further ahead so I could have more time to choose music that supported the message of the day and prepare it. He wasn't very good at planning ahead and our Parish Administrator warned me of this and accepted it as fact.
 
Solution - I met with him and asked what would his ideal situation be for planning a worship service? His response was a little surprising to me: "I'd like to sit down on Wednesday morning of that week with our team and share with everyone what I'd like to preach on, then release you to do your work." (He shared that he had heard that from a church conference he attended and wanted to try it). I was floored, since my previous church had everything planned out for an entire year in advance. Then I asked him, "how can we make that happen with the team we currently have?" I then explained the limitations we felt and the goals we had as members of his team. That was 3 years ago. Since then we've formed a Sermon Planning Team which, through much time in prayer, helps our Pastor to generate the teaching plan (sermon series or following the lectionary, etc). What started reluctantly is now a valued piece to his planning process and the result is we now have the preaching themes planned out for weeks and months ahead (We actually have the blueprint for all of 2011 done already). It didn't happen overnight, but through this process of understanding each other's position we were able to find common ground and meet the needs of our team. Certainly there are times when the plan we initially set out changes, but at least we have a plan now and are better able to adapt than when we didn't have a plan in the first place.
 
What I recommend us all to do when we disagree with our Pastor or another team member is to take a step back, find out why he/she feels the way they do and then share your side. Over time it is possible to inform your team leader/member and change his/her mind with enough information and persistence (a great line here is, "may we try it once and see how it goes"). You are a ministry team with your Pastor and other staff members. Your goal is to make disciples and do your part in expanding the kingdom, not focus on your own ministry desires. In John 17, Jesus prayed for us all to be one as he is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit. If that is not your situation, I'm sorry, but the first place you need to look is in the mirror. Then take some time with those you don't agree with and find common ground. 
 
If you're not familiar with Dale Carnegie, I would encourage you to read his book, "How to Win Friends and Influence People." It has stood the test of time and these principles work.
 
Good luck and blessings to you,
Aaron McCullough
Director of Worship and Group Ministries
St. Luke Lutheran Church
Columbus, OH
 
on December 30, 2010 12:24pm
Aaron, while you're absolutely right in exhorting us not to be hasty to pin the situation ONLY on the pastor, let's assume a few things:
 
Dan is someone with a degree of experience not only in music, but in different church dynamics just because he has been there and done that (and gotten the scars and the T-shirt!).
 
This may not have been the first time the staff musician has confronted this approach from this specific minister (whether in this church or elsewhere).
 
Indeed, let's stare at ourselves first in the mirror.  Let's remember that J. S. Bach himself spent time in prison because the town fathers at one of his jobs got fed up with him taking the approach, "I know what's best musically, and you idiots don't" - and they were those as pays the piper.  But how did it lead to prison?  Because they attacked (not too strong a word) his music, and as Klaus Aidam points out in his biography of Bach, it's the same as attacking HIM personally.  And this is something we have to recognize in ourselves as musicians:  our lives, our very selves are bound up with our making of music, and there is not seam between the two.
 
And yet, taking our own responsibilities in hand and acknowledging those, we have yet to confront the fact that there are some ministers who are not graced with a style that leads all to a common goal.  I can't and won't say that's necessarily the case here; but I have dealt with that, and the end result was not that I left, but I was driven away by this man, who cut and cut and cut my responsibilities until finally even being a volunteer in the choir was forbidden me - and I have the letter to prove it.  This was after more than a year of trying to find out what exactly this man was after with the music - the closest we ever got was "noble simplicity" - whatever THAT means (and yes, it is a phrase you can find in the documents of Vatican II - but it's just as vague there as in Virginia, and is no more help).  Finally, in the end, he wanted an end of having anyone around as a musician who didn't knuckle the forelock, and say, "Yes, Father; we're such benighted idiots, Father; teach us poor fools, Father."  Sorry; I don't have a good education both as a Catholic and a historian and 35 years of experience as a church musician to feel very honest with that approach.
 
So while we indeed may strongly suggest to Dan that he 1) engage in a serious examination of musical conscience; and 2) work with the pastor to find out what he's after, he should also be prepared to discover the unpleasant possible truth:  that this man has no idea what he wants, can't articulate anything worthwhile on his "druthers," and is so insecure that he has to issue "diktats".  And then, Dan has decisions to make - hard ones.  I pray, sincerely, that he can bring this man to see that while he doesn't challenge the pastor's right to make final decisions, they are best made if they are made in consultation with the very people he is enjoined to bring together to, in their turn, lead God's people to Him.
 
Regards,
 
Ron Duquette
Director of Music
Catholic Community
Ft. Belvoir, VA
 
on December 30, 2010 3:35pm
Ron, your point is well taken, but your illustration about Bach is inaccurate. Bach was placed in detention for 26 days in 1717 for "too stubbornly forcing the issue of his dismissal" by his employer, the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, Ernst August. No town fathers were involved, as they did not exist in the Weimar court.

Bach had conflicts with his Leipzig employers (town fathers) and supervisors, all justifiable gripes, like Dan's, but he was never sent to jail for overzealously representing his own musical approach or his manner of fulfilling his professional obligations.

Appropo to this discussion, Bach's way of dealing with these conflicts was to surround himself with powerful political and artistic allies. He became a kind of "straw boss" in the Leipzig music world and beyond by taking over the Leipzig University's Collegium Musicum, and performing public concerts with them, performing organ recitals and providing organ consultations to other towns and churches, and working hard to appoint members of his circle, students and family, to important musical positions in the region, as well as creating a systematic method of maintaining responsibility for the church music in all four Leipzig parishes. In fact, to quote the Wolff biography, "Such powerful stature in the city (and consequently within the St. Thomas School as well) bolstered by a steadily growing supra-regional reputation and by princely, ducal, and electoral-royal honorary titles at the courts of Cöthen, Weissenfels, and Dresden, respectively, made Bach practically invulnerable, and probably to some extent ungovernable." (Wolff, p 253)


on December 30, 2010 7:51pm
Yes, the comment in The New Bach Reader (p. 80) is this:
 
"On November 6 [1717], the quondam concertmaster and organist Bach was confined to the County Judge's place of detention fo too stubbornly forcing the issue of his dismillsal and finally on December 2 was freed from arrest with notice of his unfavorable discharge."
 
Unfortunately there is no documentation regarding what brought this about, and this is a part of his life that I was not aware of (and hesitate to accept the comments of later biographers as being historically accurate).
 
John
on December 30, 2010 8:18pm
Richard - Point well taken, and I stand corrected.  Eidam (and I did miswrite his name :-o ) does however make the point that many of Bach's biographers refer to his terrible temper.  Probably true, and I certainly can't plead innocent of that charge, but there are times when one is frankly justified in taking a firm stand, even in the face of the payer of the piper.  There ARE matters important enough, beyond the art, that the art is serving, and trying to serve well - and sometimes even the clergy need to be reminded - gently, I grant you - of this.  When they don't hear you, though, for whatever reason - and I don't mean disagreeing at the end of a polite and professional discussion, but I mean clearly shutting you down - you have to start making choices.  Yes, we serve the art; we serve the church; but ultimately, we serve God best by being honest with and to ourselves.
 
Ron
on December 30, 2010 10:18pm
I believe Bach would have agreed with you.
on December 31, 2010 12:40pm
Wow!
Do you think, maybe, it's time to let this one go?  Forty-four responses.  Many talking points.  Lots 'o points of view.  Pick one.  The horse seems almost beaten down here!  Has Dan's Senior Pastor seen these?  If not, he should.  I'll opine here to suggest that the two of them (Dan and S.P.) have a sit down, talk talk over a coffee--and try to iron this out.  In this forum I think we could hammer this one out til' we're blue in the face...and be spinning our wheels.  Again, wow!
   t
on December 31, 2010 3:05pm
Tom - Why?  We're all having fun, here!  Really and truly, I've had more to think about from this thread than many others.  This is great!  However, I was telling my wife about this, and that I was feeling like the little kid who wakes up in the middle of the night to hear a rather vigorous discussion going on downstairs, and he creeps to the top of the stairs and is noticed, and says, "Please, Mummy and Daddy, stop arguing!"  What he doesn't understand is that sometimes you have to bang these things out.  But I can't disagree with you that this poor nag has been beat to a pulp!  We probably will all thank God we're not facing this problem at this point in our lives, and sympathize with our brother Dan, who is; and hope and pray he and the pastor do sit down over a cup of coffee, and work this out.  Happy New Year!
 
Ron
on January 16, 2011 1:05am
This is a really huge thread, and I'm sorry if I cover ground here that others have covered. But really, in the context of the church doesn't the following passage apply far more than all later arguments, creeds, decisions and what have you?
 
(1Co 14:1 RSV) Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.
(1Co 14:2 RSV) For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.
(1Co 14:3 RSV) On the other hand, he who prophesies speaks to men for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.
(1Co 14:4 RSV) He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church.
(1Co 14:5 RSV) Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than he who speaks in tongues, unless some one interprets, so that the church may be edified.
(1Co 14:6 RSV) Now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how shall I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?
(1Co 14:7 RSV) If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will any one know what is played?
(1Co 14:8 RSV) And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?
(1Co 14:9 RSV) So with yourselves; if you in a tongue utter speech that is not intelligible, how will any one know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air.
(1Co 14:10 RSV) There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning;
(1Co 14:11 RSV) but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.
(1Co 14:12 RSV) So with yourselves; since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.
(1Co 14:13 RSV) Therefore, he who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret.
(1Co 14:14 RSV) For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful.
(1Co 14:15 RSV) What am I to do? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also.
(1Co 14:16 RSV) Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how can any one in the position of an outsider say the "Amen" to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?
(1Co 14:17 RSV) For you may give thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified.
(1Co 14:18 RSV) I thank God that I speak in tongues more than you all;
(1Co 14:19 RSV) nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue. 
 
There's nothing wrong with singing liturgy in a non-native language in principle, so long as it's translated for the hearers somehow. And on that I have some peculiar and almost unique experience.
 
Since 1982 I've been working with The Music of the Bible Revealed by Suzanne Haik-Vantoura (d. 2000). From all evidence she rediscovered the original melodic rendition of the Hebrew Masoretic Text, and therefore very closely that of the original biblical authors and editors. But, that music is so interwoven with biblical Hebrew (from the point of view both of euphony and of rhythm) that simply to transfer the melodies meaningfully to another language is impossible. To change the words means to change the music and thus the way the two interweave into a whole, thus losing the original inspired message of that interweaving - which is why she forbade any such attempts. Rather, in her public concerts for non-Hebrew speakers she had printed librettos in Latinized Hebrew and French or English which allowed the audience to follow along. I have done the same over the years. Sometimes I have people follow in their personal Bibles, which helps to a degree. And people have really responded well to my trilingual videos on YouTube.
 
Some people hear that I work with this music and think it must give me many advantages. In many ways it does. But being able to reach those whose vernacular is English, without some kind of translation, isn't one of them. On the other hand, while I enjoy the music-for-its-own-sake that is the vocal music of J.S. Bach, not being able to follow the German lyrics is a handicap and just having a German-English libretto, or even just an English one, is a great help for me. So I propose that your counterposition should be, "If the Bible says we can do this if we have a translation, and if we know that translations work in practice (and we do), why then not use song texts in foreign languages once in a while?"
on January 15, 2011 8:32pm
Hi, John.  Isn't it also in that area in 1 Corrinthians that it also admonishes women to keep silence in church?
 
There go your sopranos and altos, unless you have choirboys and countertenors!!!  After all, you can't just pick and choose your verses, can you?
 
All the best,
John
on January 16, 2011 2:32am
With regard to John Wheeler's post, his quotations from the New Testament can be read as validation of the use of the vernacular rather than the original, but can't they equally be read as encouragement to  people to become fluent in multiple languages?  Perhaps this suggests that Belgians and Scandinavians are, as a general population, more in line with New Testament theology than are North Americans and Brits...  ;-)
 
But at this point the discussion is no longer one about music but has become one more suited to a Christian theology discussion list, no?
on January 18, 2011 5:56pm
I am fortunate that I have never had a pastor make such demands on my selection of music.  In fact I can't recall a time when a pastor ever questioned a selection I have made.  I did once however have a situation with a choir and particularly one choir member regarding singing in Latin.  I had selected the De Profundis that is attributed to Mozart (recent scholars have discovered it is actually written by Carl Georg Reutter), and I had no question in my mind that we would sing it in its original language of latin.  The choir rehearsed for several weeks on this piece in Latin, and things seemed to be going fairly well for the small choir in a blue-collar suburban presbyterian church.  On the last rehearsal before we were to sing this piece, however, one elderly choir member came to me quite upset, stating that she had sung in choirs for 60 years and had never sung in Latin (boggle!!!) and that she thought it was ridiculous that we would be singing this anthem in latin.   She claimed that other choir members were also very unhappy about the choice, and complaining to her about it.  I don't like this sort of "parking lot discussion" and I wanted to put an end to it right away.  So as rehearsal began I brought up the topic to the choir and told them that they had 3 choices and must choose one of them:  1. to sing it in the original latin; 2. to sing it in the english translation given in the score; 3. to not sing at all.  Sheepishly they asked me if they could sing through it once it in English just to see how it went, so I agreed, and we did so.  After singing through it a few started to pipe up, saying that they really didn't think it sounded all that good in English and I agreed, pointing out that the music was written to highlight the Latin poetry, and that translating it to English diminishes some of the intention of the music in relation to the poetry.  We had an anonymous vote and only two people voted to sing it in English - that original woman, and the pastor (boggle!  he was also a choir member).  So sing it in Latin we did, and it was gorgeous!
 
Personally I prefer to sing choral pieces in their original language, because to diminish the music-poetry connection is to diminish the meaning of the composition.  When a composer sets a piece of text he is thinking about ways that he wants to illustrate that text, and no two settings will ever do that in quite the same way.  When we arbitrarily translate the text we remove a significant piece of that from the composition, and I prefer to not do that.
 
Julie Ford
on January 18, 2011 7:21pm
Hey, Dan,
 
Make it easy on yourself; please don't fret.
 
Observations.
You are fortunate to be involved where traditional is preferred.
The minister is your boss.
Foreign language is acceptable in your concerts.
Minister to the people in the language they speak
Don't nurse differences.
There are some decent translations of the genres you love.
Preserve your job.
 
Good Will
 
EP
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
on January 18, 2011 7:54pm
I worked for a Presbyterian church for about 15 years.  In no way could this congregation be described as "high brow," "elite," or "culturally informed." We certainly used music in languages other than English from time to time. Whenever we did, I made sure that we had a good translation in the bulletin, and that some helpful "program notes" were also included that helped the congregation understand the provenance of the music we were singing, how it specifically relates to the theme of the service or how it represents a setting of one of the lectionary texts, and perhaps a bit of historical perspective. Occasionally I would say a few words about the week's anthem during the time set aside for announcements. I also made sure from the very first rehearsal that the choir had the same information we would eventually share with the rest of the congregation. There was never a problem with choir members, pastoral staff,  nor with other members of the congregation and I often received comments like "Thanks. I learned something today."
 
My firm belief is that the choir should add something to the service that spoken words are simply not capable of providing. I don't think that the occasional use of a language other than that with which the congregation is fluent stands in the way of that goal. The key is to make sure that everyone involved is prepared for what we are doing. Does that mean some extra work? Sure. Is it worth the additional effort? Sure.
on January 19, 2011 5:08pm
I have printed in the bulletin the words to the anthem -- even when it has been sung in English (omitting repetitions) -- in order to stress the importance of their meaning which, if possible, enriched/supported the theme of the sermon.

Ruth McKendree Treen
Cape Cod, MA

  • You must log in or register to be able to reply to this message.