All songwriting is by nature a matter of setting words to music.
How well this is done is important to music both secular and sacred. In the Catholic Church it has been (and should remain) more than “important”: the setting of words to music is one of the high callings in Christian art.
Consider that Christians have a special relationship to the Word made flesh, that in the beginning was the Word, and that believing comes from hearing the Word.
What words are, what they mean and what they bring to humans is more important to the Christian than others. This fact of Christianity has had great relevance throughout history to the setting of words to music: It was not lost on the composers of Gregorian chant and myriad other composers of sacred music.
With thousands of new songs coming into use in the liturgy after Vatican II, it is nothing short of crucial to the Church that the understanding of how to set words to music be kept alive.
Textbooks have been written on the subject of word setting, but most of them are out of print.
Two principles will help us keep in mind what to look for, giving us a basis for critiquing the new products of the post-Vatican II music world. Text setting should be natural in that it corresponds to speech; it should follow the inflection and rhythm of language. The rhythms found in a melody should correspond to the natural rhythms and accents of speech, and the rise and fall of notes in a melody line should follow the natural rise and fall (inflection) of the voice in its phrasing.
In other words, when the words of a song or hymn are spoken without any music, the natural rhythm of speech should be much the same as when they are sung in the hymn. This will not be the case if the setting of text to music is poorly done.
If we usually say in normal speech “Give us this day our daily bread,” with a slight accent on day and bread, we don’t want to have a hymn that places a heavy accent on Give. No one says the phrase that way unless he is angry.
I encourage the reader to try a comparison. Go ahead and say, out loud, Give us this day our daily bread — and then, Give us this day our daily bread.
If you listen closely, you may recognize that a mild form of the latter belongs to the unfortunate translation of the Pater Noster into English so common at Mass today.
The problem of translation is a great one, but we must set the general problem aside for the moment to concentrate on learning the principle at hand: Text setting should follow the natural inflection and rhythm of language.
Language is full of accents — just as music is.
Language has a rise and fall of pitch (notes) just as music does. The composer setting words to music must be careful to make sure that the pitches in his or her melody correspond to the natural pitches in the phrasing of language.
Let us continue with the translated Pater Noster as a source of illustration. First, set the music aside a moment and think of the natural accents of speech in saying the phrases without the music: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.”
Further, think of the natural rise and fall of the phrase when spoken. It tends to rise up to “Kingdom” and “will” with another slightly less prominent rise to “earth,” and it ends evenly with “is in heaven.” The word heaven has the natural rhythm of following a quick syllable with a longer one: Hea (quick) — ven (sustained).
In the chant, when the translated English version reaches this point, the combination of accent and inflection becomes most unnatural. Everything natural, just noted above, is violated by the translated Pater Noster.
The accents of the translated musical version become: Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done. And these phrases incorrectly also have descending pitches, ignoring the natural rising pitches noted above.
Unfortunately, these wrong accents and pitch inflections, if spoken and not sung, express sarcasm and despondency. An American who spoke those words that way would be taken to be just that — sarcastic and despondent. Therefore, the sung Pater Noster, translated into English, sounds irrational and sing-songy to the trained ear. No one in particular is to blame for these distortions. They are inherent in the risk of translating. What is blameworthy is continuing to use the translation; it should remain in Latin.
This brief analysis of the English translation of the Pater Noster can teach a great deal about wrong accents and inflection in setting text to music, and it applies to all songs.
Improvement of post-Vatican II music must be sought in this area. It is crucial in these musical times that the understanding of how to set text to music be recovered.
Once a person understands the two basic principles of text setting just given above, he or she can better judge songs and hymns of any type.
Webster A. Young is
a classical music composer.