Back when I first learned about Old Church Slavonic, the sexiest language around, I was intrigued by Czech composer Leoš Janáček’s masterpiece of twentieth-century choral repetoire, the Glagolitic Mass. Instead of setting the mass in Latin, as is the fashion and which he himself considered in 1908, Janáček instead decided to look far back into his country’s history and set the mass in Old Church Slavonic. I bought a recording right away, and for some months enjoyed the music while puzzling over the libretto. Why, I thought, was the OCS vowel yat marked (in transliteration as ě), while the two nasal vowels were not to be seen at all? How authentic was the text, and was I sure to be getting Old Church Slavonic instead of some thoroughly uninteresting redaction like Russian Church Slavonic?
I discovered the awful truth upon acquiring Paul Wingfield’s Janáček: Glagolitic Mass, a Cambridge Music Handbook. In the third chapter, ‘The (Old?) Church Slavonic text’, Wingfield—guided by a few fine handbooks for OCS—shows that the text of Janáček’s work is a
hybrid and error-ridden, transliterated variant of Old Church Slavonic. Not only did Janáček piece together the work from two imperfect attempts at getting to an OCS mass, but in the process of revising the music he would write out the text from memory and fail to check it against the source. A scholar, Miloš Weingart, attempted to correct the text in 1928, but he felt he had to omit the nasal vowels, thinking them too difficult for singers, and had to leave out the missing jers lest he add a hundred extra syllables to the work.
Further attempts have been made in the last seventy years to reach an acceptable text that could fairly well be called Old Church Slavonic, but none entirely successfully. The only Old Church Slavonic gimmick I could show off to my friends, unwilling to admit OCS’s class and allure, proves to be an mismash about as unnatural as anything one would hear in Russian or Bulgarian liturgies. Oh well, at least it is still good music.