The perils of being a pedant

One letter or comma is enough to upset a pedant

I’ve just spent quite some time pondering the difference one letter and a comma make. I had two psalm responses to deal with : ‘O bless the Lord, my soul!’ and ‘Oh, bless the Lord, my soul!’  They are definitely different in feel but they have the same number of syllables and could theoretically be sung to the same tune.  I decided in the end that the difference was enough to warrant rewriting the Response tune, even though the words of the verses are the same.

Job surrounded by fierce animals
Now let me think…where did I put that comma?
Keeping the words exact

Why does it matter?  It matters because when I began setting the psalms, I wanted to set the words exactly as they appear in the Missal.  When I first started, I allowed myself a little leeway (partly because I only had a UK Missal and we were part of a congregation using the US Lectionary), but also because, having sung religious music all my life, I knew that composers were allowed to repeat or emphasize words if they felt the need.  Then the Church prescribed the new translation of the Mass, and when I looked at the guidelines in GIRM,  it turned out that there was no leeway at all.  You were supposed to write a tune for the words exactly as given.  Even the punctuation was sacrosanct, I discovered, including aberrant capital letters.  Unless the text with the music was exactly as the text in the Missal, no repetitions, no inversions, no added commas, no nothing, it would not be approved.  Luckily you only need to get a Mass setting approved, but I decided that if this was the Church’s line, I would have to stick to it.

What happens to you if you don’t keep the rules
No repetitions, no deviations, no hesitations

It’s not logical, as it means that you shouldn’t be able to use any of the great composers’ Mass settings any more (no Bach, no Palestrina, no Mozart, no Haydn; I doubt they observe this in the Vatican Choir), but there we are.  There are problems, too, as the Missal is not infallible, and I have to find a way of dealing with errors.  If it’s obviously a misprint, I’ll correct it, but often it’s punctuation, and it probably doesn’t bother anyone except me and my fellow pedants.  You need to be a nit-picker in digital music publishing, but it does make it difficult when you are forced to reproduce errors.  (That’s when being a pedant is really, really hard.)

No mentioning women, either

You also have no leeway over non-inclusive language.  I set it as written, but I have had to allow myself to comment if it’s particularly bad (All Saints, Holy Family, wedding psalms) or I will burst.

woman with ornate false beard
Struggling with non-inclusive language

Volmar the Vebmaster says that being so exact with the words is passive-aggressive, and he’s been on fancy management and character-type analysis courses, so he’s probably right, but I think that it would be difficult to draw an exact line on how far you would be prepared to alter the text, so it’s safer not to get into it.

Most people are not bothered by the differences between the national versions either, as usually you only need one missal/lectionary for any congregation, and you aren’t especially interested in the other versions.  Here being a pedant helps;  I find having four versions to compare and contrast every week sharpens my perception of the small differences.  The People’s Front of Judea are going to be the closest critics of the manifesto of the Judean Popular Front.

O table! The vocative ‘O’ that baffles all small Latin scholars

To return to my problem with the Responses : it’s not so much the spelling, I’ve concluded, as the comma.  ‘O bless the Lord, my soul!’ is more formal than ‘Oh bless the Lord, my soul!’, though I think I would not have felt the need to set them differently.  But ‘Oh, bless the Lord, my soul!’ needs a pause after the ‘Oh’, which alters the movement of the line. (‘O bless’ is the CAN version,  ‘Oh, bless’ is for OZ.  The US is ‘O bless the Lord’, but its verse words are 4/4, so the tune is different anyway, and the UK is ‘Bless the Lord, my soul! Lord God, how great you are’, which presents a whole new set of considerations.)

It’s the Response to Psalm 103/104, which is a wonderfully baggy psalm about Creation, expansive and sprawling, with verses of wildly varying length, totally impossible to tidy up into a small number of pages even in the compact version.  It’s like one of St Francis’ joyful litanies about the wonder of Creation, and it’s where the Pentecost psalm is taken from, where the Spirit is sent forth and everything starts budding and flourishing in profusion.  Having it as the Sunday psalm is a bit like having to sing Hadyn’s Creation in three minutes flat, or something from the Reduced Shakespeare Company.   It’s an awkward psalm to set and it is long to sing (five verses), but it’s so exuberant that I love it.

Pity to leave out the monsters

It seems strange to have (except the UK version) such a short Response, but I see it as a sort of arrow prayer that boils over from the contemplation of all God’s wonderful creatures enumerated in the verses.  Even with five verses, there’s far more left out than included, and sadly we lose one of my favourite bits.  Just after the ‘moving swarms past counting, living things great and small’ in the ocean in verse 3, the psalmist continues, ‘The ships are moving there/ and the monsters you made to play with,’ which I think is a wonderful line.

Map with sea monsters
Some of the sea monsters for God to play with
Punctuation pedants rule, OK?

This Response is unusual in having an exclamation mark after it as well (not for the US), which also affects the way I set it.  It makes me try to roll the end of the verse into the Response so that it sounds as though it’s a spontaneous outburst of praise, a genuine exclamation.  So many times the rubrics say ‘The people acclaim’ when all we are doing is saying ‘Amen’ (always with a full stop) or something similar, but this should be a proper acclamation.  Exclamation marks and full stops are significantly different things.  We pedants celebrate this sort of difference.

A full stop full of meaning (and stop)

Here is a very good example of precisely that.  One final reason why I like this psalm is because its last line is the same as the first  (Bless the Lord, my soul!) but this time with a full stop instead of the exclamation mark.  So the movement of the psalm is like this.   It starts with exultation and an exclamation.  Then the psalmist runs through a huge list of the wonders of Creation, bursting (more exclamation marks) into overt praise twice on the way (How many are your works, O Lord! […] May the glory of the Lord last for ever!).    He reflects on what he has been praising and makes a resolution: I will sing to the Lord all my life, make music to my God while I live (a wonderful resolution and the spirit all church musicians should strive for); and then he ends quietly : Bless the Lord, my soul.

This is the calm tone of someone who appreciates all the glory of Creation and now is reflecting upon it, like Wordsworth’s daffodils : emotion recollected in tranquillity.  And all from a full stop.  Being a pedant can be a pain, but it’s also very rewarding.

Fiddler with dancer
Hours of fun making music across a lifetime


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Naming the Alleluias (and remembering which is which)

Keeping track of proliferating Alleluias

When I started the blog on Gospel Acclamations, or Alleluias, I was vaguely thinking that I needed to talk about the names we’ve given them.  Then the blog turned out to be too large and had to be split into two parts, and when I’d finished talking about the verse words in Part Two, I realised that I still hadn’t got around to explaining the names. So I parked it for a little while, but now we are rushing towards the end of the Church’s year when different names stop being relevant for a while anyway, and I realised that I needed to get on with it.   The topic of naming and the importance of names came up in our new Bible study, and I realised there was more to it than I had thought.

God creating earth
In the beginning
Genesis and the beginning of names

Our group has just launched this year’s Bible study, and we’re doing Genesis. This is a new departure for us, as everything else so far has been from the New Testament. I have to admit that I was the person originally pushing for Genesis because St Paul was giving me indigestion and there’s an awful lot of St Paul to study in the New Testament. I would like to study Job, but we couldn’t find a suitable study. Then we found a study for Genesis, and I managed to persuade the others. It’s fascinating so far.

Creation with God at centre
Here is God creating but not naming the animals (you can tell because he has clothes on)

Apart from the obvious attraction of studying slowly something which you (wrongly) might have thought was so familiar (two Creation accounts, two special trees in the garden), all sorts of small things come up every week.  We’re still in the early stages, of course, but something that struck me forcibly was the account of Adam naming all the creatures.

Adam shares the naming
Adam with assorted beasts
Here are the animals waiting to be named

God does the cosmic naming (light, heaven, earth, seas etc), but all the birds and beasts and creepy-crawlies are brought to Adam (in the second account) ‘to see what he would call them’, (Genesis 2) and whatever he calls them is their true name and expresses their essence.

This is one of the ways in which Adam exerts dominion.  Or you might say responsibility : you can name only something that you have responsibility for. God allowing Adam to name the creatures gives him a role which makes him different from them.

Adam names the beasts
I particularly like the dragon, but the legless snake shouldn’t be there yet

When you make something, you can name it because you know it better than anyone else does, and naming has power, it expresses essence.  You can name your own children (though some people have huge difficulty with this and planning it seems to take longer than the baby takes to grow), you can name anything you make, or write, or compose, or create, like a new rose.  (Genesis omits the question of who called the rose a rose.)

Names need to mean something

This is slightly intimidating when I think of how informally I thought about the Alleluias when I started.  It was quickly clear that there needed to be more than one (the metre of the verse words was the main factor here), and I started by just giving them numbers, although we already had one (Mayfield) named because I was doing the Mass, and at that point everything felt like part of the same batch.   This did mean though that I avoided using Alleluia  No 1 to start with, in the best traditions of numbering things, and indeed, we still haven’t got an official Alleluia No 1 (somehow it feels as though it wouldn’t be fair on the others).

Go forth and multiply

The problem with numbering was that it was arbitrary and depended entirely on when I wrote something, which was no help remembering which was which.  The next few Alleluias took their name from some association, because I hoped they would be easier to remember, like the Clock Alleluia, which starts with the chime of our bonging clock.  There is another group attached to certain stages of the Church’s year : Advent, Easter, Christmas.  This works,  except that it limits when you feel happy using them.  I use the Christmas Alleluia for Mary the Mother of God, for example, for obvious reasons, but you can’t use an Advent Alleluia in the middle of Ordinary Time even if the tune feels right, because the associations are wrong.  So the Pentecost Alleluia was quickly renamed Alleluia No 4, because it was too useful to be limited to Pentecost season.  If your congregation really likes one particular Alleluia, you can usually substitute it for the one set for a particular Sunday (not if it’s one of the less frequent 3/4 ones, though), and if you need it transposing, just e-mail me.   I ended up having to produce a list of current Alleluias for ease of reference, and we call it Alleluias Inc.

Names easier than numbers

Some of the names are just private references.  The Jacob Alleluia is because the tune climbs slowly up a ladder, like in Jacob’s dream of the angels and the old spiritual.  The Wimbledon Alleluia just wombles around itself.  The Michael Alleluia has a little quotation from another spiritual, Michael, Row the boat ashore, that we used to sing in the car when we were little (easy words and a better tune than many nursery songs, and the second verse actually mentions a sister, which we girls liked).

The Simple Alleluia only has two repeats of the word ‘alleluia’, not the usual three.  The Step has a dance rhythm.  The Stuart is a canon Alleluia (one of the ones that continues round and round under the verse words), and I called it after Mary Queen of Scots’ motto ‘In my end is my beginning’ because I was really having trouble remembering them all by now.  The Wedding Alleluia is short, catchy and quick to pick up for people who are full of goodwill but may not go to church that often.

Autres pays, autres mélodies

With the OZ Alleluias, I tried a different tack.  One of my other interests is women’s fiction from the nineteenth century, so I used the names of a couple of authors, Miles Franklin and Ethel Turner.  That’s not actually any more help with remembering them quickly, though….  I haven’t written any specifically Canadian Alleluias yet, but I have found myself using the OZ ones for other countries, so I need to decide whether they should be country-specific.  I suspect not.

The Petropavlovsk Alleluia was a little joke.  I wrote it for a friend whose middle names are Peter Paul (guess when his birthday is), and he was in Russia at the time.

Special cases : the Lent Acclamations and the Advent Alleluia

The Lent Gospel Acclamations cause Volmar the Vebmaster and me terrible trouble every year because they somehow escape even when you think you’re on top of them (see previous blog, and here is the helpful illustration).

Hunting the Bonnacon, a mythical beast
Getting to grips with the Lent Gospel Acclamation

Luckily the Advent equivalent does not cause nearly so many problems.  For one thing, the words are still ‘Alleluia’, instead of being several different (but only slightly) sets of words, varying from country to country but also from week to week, like the various Lent Gospel Acclamations.  So the point about the Advent Alleluias is more to get the overall trajectory right, and I can use the same Alleluia for everyone, just changing the tune for the changing verse words.  And, except for the fourth week of Advent, the verse words are the same for each Sunday across all three years of the Lectionary (though obviously different for each set of countries).

Moving forward towards Christmas

Working with the Advent Alleuias, then, I tried to make them point forwards towards the celebration of Christmas, using 3/4 instead of the usual 4/4 Alleluia, because it always feels as though it has a forward impetus and feels a bit like dancing.  Much of the Christmas music is in 3/4, I think because lots of carols are (and many started as dances), and that, plus bouncy counter-rhythms, adds to the folky feel, which is what I’m after: nothing sophisticated, just a building childlike excitement, looking forward to what’s coming.

Advent and Christmas Alleluias : two names that work

And I don’t even have to think of another name for this one.  It’s just called the Advent Alleluia.  We have it only for the four weeks of Advent, when it gives way to the Christmas Alleluia, which is bigger, triumphant and even has an optional descant.  It’s meant to sound like cascading Christmas bells on Christmas morning, and it’s dead easy – you only need a small group to sing it, because it happens in counterpoint to the main tune, and it doesn’t take five minutes to learn.  Just as I collect only easy recipes, I only write easy-to-sing music, so why not try it? Again like my recipes, you get the maximum effect for the minimum effort!

mediaeval dancers in a line
Christmas dancing, about 1300 AD. Note the little hop : that’s my counter-rhythm!


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