Think of all those great translations of Latin hymns

There is an interesting Telegraph blog by the pianist Stephen Hough this week, about his conversion to the Catholic Church as a boy of 16. He and his mother were staying in a guesthouse, down the road from Buckfast Abbey:

“We went to Mass there, mainly because it was within walking distance, and immediately I had this feeling of entering an enormous, strange, fascinating new world.
 
“It wasn’t just the unfamiliar sight of sun streaming through stained glass windows and the sound of Latin chant. I felt I was in a forbidden place, an enclave of papism – really quite an exciting sensation for an awkward, rebellious teenager. I was about to leave all Christian faith behind when this window to a bigger truth opened: that beauty can be a path to God, and that a fixed, “impersonal” liturgy can seem less man-made than extemporary prayers.”

His conversion was from an evangelical form of Protestantism, and as he puts it, “it might have caused less offence if I’d taken up smoking hashish”. Now, he says, “I no longer feel so separated from the tradition in which I grew up. If I want to attend Anglican evensong or sing Methodist hymns I can – and do, with pleasure. Our communities understand each other better. There’s room for a two-way exchange, and I hope the ordinariate will make that exchange even warmer.”
 
I also hope it will: all the same, it has to be said that in the case of mainstream broad church Anglicanism I really don’t think that our communities do understand each other better: what has happened is that Roman Catholics have begun to understand Catholic-minded Anglicans a lot better (it isn’t just that Anglo-Catholics have realised that any kind of understanding with Anglicanism as it has developed is now impossible for them): and the “Anglican patrimony” they bring with them is of a kind entirely compatible with the Roman patrimony of the mainstream English Catholic Church.
 
Largely that is because, over the decades, beginning with the Oxford movement in which John Henry Newman was such a major formative influence, Anglo-Catholics made themselve  relatively comfortable within Anglicanism by constructing a liturgical culture and an ecclesiology (which has now entirely collapsed) according to which the Anglican Church had never really left the mainstream of Western Christendom. That explains why the Tractarians and post-Tractarians (or “Anglo-Catholics”) were culturally so entirely happy with – and showed, many of them, such wonderful comprehension of – the Catholic spiritual tradition. This led to some of the great Anglo-Catholic church architecture of the 19th century – think of Sir Ninian Comper (have a look here at the cover of Fr Anthony Symondson’s book about him) – and, most powerfully for me, to some of the great 19th-century hymns, many translated from the medieval Latin, some of which, I was delighted to find on my conversion, have long since entered the Catholic repertory.
 
Particularly, this is true of the greatest translator of all, Catholic or Anglican, the Tractarian priest John Mason Neale, who produced much the best English translation of the Benediction hymn (“Therefore, we before him bending”) as well as many other great classics: I think particularly of two hymns both of which in my parish (the Oxford Oratory) we sang on the last Sunday before Lent. The first, “Christ is made the sure foundation”, was the entrance hymn for the Pope’s visit to Westminster Abbey: with its magnificent tune by Henry Purcell and equally majestic words by John Mason Neale (from a seventh-century Latin hymn) – and, it has to be said, its stately choreography by the Dean of Westminster – it was such stuff as ceremonial dreams are made on. You can see it here; and here are the words:

Christ is made the sure foundation,
Christ the head and cornerstone,
chosen of the Lord, and precious,
binding all the Church in one;
holy Zion’s help for ever,
and her confidence alone.
 
All that dedicated city,
dearly loved of God on high,
in exultant jubilation
pours perpetual melody;
God the One in Three adoring
in glad hymns eternally.
 
To this temple, where we call thee,
come, O Lord of Hosts, today;
with thy wonted loving-kindness
hear thy servants as they pray,
and thy fullest benediction
shed within its walls alway.
 
Here vouchsafe to all thy servants
what they ask of thee of gain;
what they gain from thee, for ever
with the blessèd to retain,
and hereafter in thy glory
evermore with thee to reign.
 
Laud and honor to the Father,
laud and honor to the Son,
laud and honor to the Spirit,
ever Three, and ever One,
consubstantial, co-eternal,
while unending ages run.

(Singing those last two lines never fails to give me goose-pimples). But the greatest of all Neale’s translations for me is the tenderly beautiful, the wonderfully poetic “Jerusalem the Golden”, translated from words by St Bernard of Cluny. I don’t have a well-performed version for you, but if you don’t know the tune to which it’s usually sung, here it is:

Jerusalem the golden,
with milk and honey blest,
beneath thy contemplation
sink heart and voice oppressed:
I know not, oh, I know not,
what social joys are there;
what radiancy of glory,
what bliss beyond compare!
 
They stand, those halls of Zion,
all jubilant with song,
and bright with many an angel,
and all the martyr throng:
the Prince is ever in them,
the daylight is serene;
the pastures of the blessèd
are decked in glorious sheen.
 
There is the throne of David;
and there, from care released,
the shout of them that triumph,
the song of them that feast;
and they who with their Leader
have conquered in the fight,
for ever and for ever
are clad in robes of white.
 
Oh, sweet and blessèd country,
the home of God’s elect!
Oh, sweet and blessèd country,
that eager hearts expect!
Jesus, in mercy bring us
to that dear land of rest,
who art, with God the Father,
and the Spirit, ever blest.

(The sixth line is usually rendered these days “what joys await us there”, presumably because some ignoramus thought that “social joys” sounded too much like a cocktail party).
 
I could go on: I would like to say more about John Mason Neale (have a look here if you’re interested) and the Tractarian cultural tradition. I have only said as much as I have because someone whose blushes I will spare, shortly after the ordinariate was announced, said he doubted there was much of an Anglican patrimony that was compatible with real Catholicism. Well, we have been drawing on this Anglican patrimony for some time now: both these hymns are in the splendid Catholic Hymn Book edited by the London Oratory and published by Gracewing, and in other Catholic hymnals, too. And there’s a lot more patrimony (and not just hymns) where they came from: as we shall now begin to see.

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