The perils of being a pedant

One letter or comma is enough to upset a pedant

The perils of being 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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Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe composes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines. She writes about what comes up in the process, and blogs for The Tablet.