Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Jason has been in the scriptorium

It's been quite a while since I've posted anything for Christus Vincit. Among other things, I have been exploring the inner recesses of the Liber Usualis as well as the current chant books in search of interesting items. You see, the parish choir at Fatima Church is currently learning to read chant notation and has already mastered the Missa XVII for use in the Lenten season. They learned the neumes very quickly. I first had them sing the Missa VIII from chant notation, since they were already extremely familiar with it, most of the singers able to sing that ordinary by heart. Some weeks later, I distributed to them a hand-out I had prepared which explained basic chant tonality and the names of the various neumes. Of course, I had to print the first verse of the famous Ut Queant Laxis of Paul the Deacon (8th century), from which the note names were drawn (do, re, mi, etc.). This particular chant sent me on a quest for answers: why is the text of this chant so different from the other chants, by and large? Why does this text present such a difficult read? I found the answers in closer study of the text, as well as by conducting some good old fashioned research. I noticed that the closing doxology of the Ut Queant in the Liber Usualis does not conform to the style of the previous verses. And what explains the strange syntax and lofty vocabulary: why use "queant" when most any Latin author would probably have just used "possint". Paul the Deacon you see, was a member of the literary circle, so to speak, of Charlemagne (Alcuin of York was another member, referred to in the court not as Alcuin, but as "Flaccus", after the Roman poet Horace), and this text, the Ut Queant, is a prime example of the literature (yes, I say literature, not chant) of the Carolingian Renaissance. That said, I removed the text from the chant and wrote it out to find that what I had before me was not the typical poetry of a Scripture-based chant text, but a neatly and very cleverly composed set of classical Sapphic strophes. Paul the Deacon had used a classical poetry model for his Hymn (Ode) to John the Baptist. The meter is determined by the value of the long and short syllables according to vowel placement in relation to the consonants in each line. Contemporary verse, on the other hand, as we all learned in school, is scanned according to the natural stress in each word. Classical poetry presents a poetic formula/matrix into which the words are forced. Modern poetry presents words which by nature create a poetic pattern. This explains the word choice: queant scans correctly according to the number of long's and short's required for the Sapphic Strophe. The final doxology scans correctly, but just doesn't have the same flair as the rest of the work. I surmise it was added later, when the text was set to music. The entire text of the poem consists of some 13 verses in all. Looking through the Cantus Selecti, I turned up another bit of the complete poem entitled "O nimis felix" with another doxology of a different style like the one attached to Ut queant. In the Antiphonale Monasticum, yet another section of the poem is to be found in the guise of "Antra". Intrigued by the work, I searched for a translation into English. Finding none, I explored the text even further, and prepared my own translation of the text. When I figure out how to do it, I will record the original Ut Queant in Latin recited in Sapphic Strophes. The chant melody, you see, disregards the original scansion and treats it like a prose text, so the originally intended stresses are lost. Read aloud in Sapphic strophes, we come upon a long-forgotten polished gem of Catholic poetry. The classical references to Olympus and to the garlanded sacrificial victim are not by chance. Remember, Paul the Deacon is preserving the classical artistic ideal in contemporary verse. His listeners would have understood the references, and moreover, they make even clearer the nature of the matrydom of the Baptist, desert eremite. Here's my translation:

Paulus Diaconus (ca. 725-799)
Hymn in honor of St. John the Baptist, “Ut queant laxis resonare fibris”
Translated: Jason A. Pennington, 2006

So that The wonders of your deeds
resound the very fiber of your servants
Purify the guilt of polluted lips,
O, Saint John!

A messenger from high Olympus,
Informed your father of your birth;
Revealed your name and, in time’s course,
The life-revealers’ sequence.

Doubtful of the heavenly promise,
One destroyed the mean of eager tongue;
But you restored by birth the voice
Struck dumb.

Within the unseen cradle of the womb,
You sensed the King within His chamber,
Hence, each mother swelled concealed
By the merits of a son.

You sought out tender desert caves
In year-long flight of pressing mobs,
Lest only by a meager fasting
You might mark your life.

The camel offered you its hairy garment;
For your loins a ram’s wool belt;
Liquid honey offered drink, and as food,
Its sweetness shared with locusts.

Other prophets sang with hearts
Foretelling future sunshine;
But you point out the one,
To take upon himself our fault.

Within the vast entirety of Earth
Was never born one holier than John,
Worthy to wet in sacred springs that Man
Who cleansed the world of scandal.

O you too fortunate and of heavenly merit
Not knowing disgrace of snowy modesty,
Most powerful martyr, desert eremite,
Greatest of sages!

Some with garlands thrice ten crowned,
Others doubly wreathed in greater increments;
Garlanded in triple heaps one-hundred-fold with profit
are you, holy one.

Now strong with fertile merits,
Repel our breast’s obdurate stone,
Make plane the rugged journey, and straight
The crooked path.

So that the just Creator and Redeemer when He comes,
Vulgarity expunged from undefiled minds,
Might duly deem it worthy
To set His sacred steps.

Inhabitants of heaven praise You, God,
Simple, and yet equally triune.
Hear our humble plea for mercy:
Spare the redeemed!

1 comment:

Brian Michael Page said...

Wow - Mass XVII! I haven't had the pleasure of doing that one since my Holy Name days! Gotta love the extreme range on the Agnus. I used to play it in D (same with the Sanctus), giving it the top note of D, but the bottom note (which begins the second Agnus) is the low A.