Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On the "Te Deum"

Long ago in the 1980s, even before I was Catholic, even before I had ever heard it sung, I had discovered the majesty of the "Te Deum." My first encounter with it was in King James-era English associated with the Anglican tradition. I noticed that it appeared in a couple of different translations in the Book of Common Prayer. In the older Cranmer-and-Coverdale vintage English translations, it had a power that is hard to describe. But I never heard it sung in church. I only heard it in recorded performances of settings by various classical composers -- Tallis, Lully, Purcell, Mozart, Berlioz, etc.

Once I heard Tom Howard describe how he was moved to tears when he first read the hymn, such was its powerful effect on him. And he was very nearly moved to tears just reading an excerpt for us:
The glorious company of the Apostles praise thee.
The goodly fellowship of the Prophets praise thee.
The noble army of Martyrs praise thee.
The holy Church throughout all the world doth acknowledge thee;
The Father of an infinite Majesty;
Thine honourable, true and only Son;
Also the Holy Ghost ...
When I became a Catholic, I noticed that the Te Deum seldom appeared anywhere, and I wondered why. I did see it published in issues of Magnificat magazine, which I picked up here and there. Yet I never heard it sung on any occasions in church, except in the distally-related hymn, "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name," which isn't quite the same thing.

Apart from the "classical" Gregorian Chant settings, such as this 5th Century Monastic Chant setting, which I find beautiful, I have always thought (due, perhaps, to my particular idiosyncratic failings of taste) that it would be appropriate for the hymn to have a bold martial setting that could be accompanied easily by men in a congregation -- something that would strike terror into the hearts of The Enemy, like Wagner's "Flight of the Valkyries" in Apocalypse Now. The closest thing I've run into yet was this setting with majestic organ accompaniment by Pierre Cochereau, the Maîtrise of Notre-Dame in Paris (courtesy of Fr. John Zuhlsdorff, January 11, 2011).

I love the smell of incense at Benediction in the morning. It smells like ... victory.


Ralph Roister-Doister said...

A Vatican decree was issued several years ago that "Te Deum" would be replaced in all Church ceremonies by "We Have Come to Tell Our Story." It was felt that contemporary Catholics would find their own stories rather more engaging than the tired old trinitarian chestnut.

The decree was recently unearthed from beneath a couple of tons of "theology of the body" papers.

Anonymous said...

In the places you cite, as in others, is the verb "praise" or "praises"? It makes a difference in that the one is more than a mere description.

As a side note, we have started to sing the Te Deum at the end of Benediction, following Vespers. It's majestic, isn't it?

I first encountered it in music from the Anglican tradition.

What I find most tiresome in the English translations is that they move the emphasis:

Te Deum laudamus (Thee, O God, we praise)


WE praise thee. O God! (hand on head).

Just some seemingly random, disorganized thoughts.

God bless,


Dark Horse said...

Heh. Ralph rocks.

Dan said...

Anonymous wrote:

"In the places you cite, as in others, is the verb "praise" or "praises"? It makes a difference in that the one is more than a mere description."

In the Latin the verb is 'laudat' which is singular. It is given only once for three subjects, 'Apostolorum chorus', 'prophetarum numerus' and 'Martyrum candidatus exercitum' all of which are collective nouns. 'Constructio ad sensum'(use of the plural according to sense) would, I think, be good grammar in this case but it was not used. Whether the plural would make the same subtle difference in the sense of the Latin, I don't know-- but doubt that it would. No two languages correspond exactly.

BTW in my old missal there are some indulgences attached to this prayer.

Dan said...

Before anyone comments on it, let me acknowledge the typo. It's nominative "candidatus exercitus" not "...tum."

Btw, repeating the pronoun "te" with each subject but holding the verb until the third subject-object set, creats a tension that isn't released until the third set. The nominative-accusative combinations beg for the verb which receives emphasis by being withheld.

It can be done in English with "Thee" and "doth praise" which, IMHO, sounds like a forced imitation of the Latin but does have the advantage of being entirely faithful.

De gustibus...