Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass is useless

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.

6 thoughts on “Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass is useless

  1. Myles

    I am interested in obtaining a copy of the actual text (and a translation) that Janáček used in his Glagolitic Mass. Can you help me?

    Thanks, Myles

  2. CRCulver

    Just buy a copy of the score from any music dealer. Then you’d have a copy of the text, and since it’s just the Latin Mass, you can find any number of translations of the Latin original into English.

  3. Casey Goranson

    Thank you very, very much for posting this blog! It’ll probably end up saving me a lot of trouble someday, say, if I have to do a paper on the work!
    It is definitely a beautiful piece of music, even with a massacred-Old-Church-Slavonic text. Poor, poor Janáček… bad enough that he thought the language was called Glagolitic…
    On the other hand, it kinda makes me feel a little better about one of my own compositions, albeit one much smaller and nowhere near an awesome as Janáček’s. Four years ago, I wrote a song with a libretto in Proto-Indo-European, also of my own devising. The music is good, but the text is abominable.
    1) I’d mistakenly thought that the ending -*yo had to be added on to nouns to make them adjectives.
    2) Redundancies like “freeze… into ice” and unnecessary, unpoetic repetition like “nokwtyosu-kue nokwtsu” for “in the dark nights” make it sound almost childish.
    3) No form of poetic structure was used, save a weak kind of rhyme; I’ve since learned that regular, syllable-length-based metre was probably used in PIE times.

  4. Frank Wilhoit

    It is not “just the Latin Mass”, as Janacek omits the first “hosanna” and the “dona nobis pacem”. The text as he set it contains many small errors (small in the sense that they affect only a single word, not necessarily minor as in not severe), but these two larger omissions are a different kind of thing. They are more of a piece with his attitude towards the sources of his operatic texts, and therefore look more deliberate.

    The omission of the first “hosanna” is almost understandable, because he makes a huge deal out of the second “hosanna”. The published score loses much of this effect, as it reflects a cut of fourteen bars that contain six choral repetitions of “osanna vo vysnich”.

    The omission of the “dona nobis pacem” is much more glaring and difficult to rationalize. After the characteristically dissonant harmony of the rest of the Agnus, the relaxation into the pure tonic triad of A-flat in the last two bars does convey a peaceful effect, but omitting the text is still a very violent break with liturgical tradition.

    The body of literature that is contemporary with the emergence of the Gregorian tradition of liturgical music in the Western church (in the ninth century AD) consistently states that the text is of such supreme importance that it is impermissible to allow any PURELY musical structural devices to intrude upon it. Gradually, over the ensuing seven or eight centuries, that attitude relaxed, as music became more complex and therefore had to employ abstract musical forms in order to be adequately comprehensible and self-explanatory to its performers and its audiences. But at NO time was it ever considered permissible to omit words or phrases from the text of the Mass.

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