The buzz on the new "Exultet": here come the bees!

With Easter rapidly approaching, deacons everywhere will be clearing their throats and getting ready to give voice to the great hymn of the Paschal Proclamation — also known as “The Exultet,” a seven-minute a capaella chant that fittingly, as the lyric proclaims, “humbles earthly pride.”    It is the Mother of All Chants, an epic best approached with a strong heart and steeled nerves.

(For those interested, there’s an excellent downloadable version here that I’ve used for the last three years.)

My pal Elizabeth Scalia took note the other day of the new Roman Missal translation, so this seems a good time to mention, too, the changes coming to “The Exultet” — and they are not insignificant.

Those who aren’t aware of them may want to sit down.

The text which is sung now begins:

“Rejoice, heavenly powers!  Sing choirs of angels!  Exult all creation around God’s throne!  Jesus Christ, our King, is risen!”

That will become:

“Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven, exult, let Angel ministers of God exult, let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!”

There are quite a few long and meandering tongue twisters along the way, like:

“Therefore, dearest friends, standing in the awesome glory of this holy light, invoke with me, I ask you, the mercy of God almighty, that he, who has been pleased to number me, though unworthy, among the Levites, may pour into me his light unshadowed, that I may sing this candle’s praises…”

But one of the biggest of the many changes is the inclusion of bees.  Yes.  Bees.  To wit:

On this, your night of grace, O holy Father, accept this candle, a solemn offering, the work of bees and of your servants’ hands, an evening sacrifice of praise, this gift from your most holy Church…

(You can read more, and see the musical setting, right here.  The good news: we all have a year to practice.)

Evidently, bees were mentioned prominently in early versions of the medieval texts, and so are making a return appearance.  Rejoice!  (Unless, of course, you’re allergic…)   It remains to be seen — and heard — how all this will sound in the all-too-human voice of your average parish deacon (ahem) and how it will then land on the ear.  (Or will the deacon land on his rear?)  Stay tuned.

So, practice, gentlemen.

And, of course, pray …

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24 responses to “The buzz on the new "Exultet": here come the bees!”

  1. I would be tempted to make some stinging remarks had I not left Rome for the Episcopal Church and largely given up commenting on your intramural matters. It is remarkable that your church is insisting on universal conformity to this new translation while making so many concessions to the comparatively few Anglicans who want to join your church while keeping Anglican liturgy.

  2. As a kid growing up in a Spanish-speaking territory, I remember well the bees’ (“abeja”) mention. As a fully bilingual person who has been in the US mainland for over 20 years (and attending Mass in English since I moved here) I am glad to see a new translation that shares the same meaning with the one I grew up (and Spanish being very close to the Latin).

  3. Well, it’s definitely closer to the original. But at first reading the many repetitions of “exult” struck me as bizarre.

    My 1962 St. Andrew Missal translates the passages in question as follows:
    “Let the angelic choirs of heaven now rejoice; let the divine mysteries be celebrated with joy; and let the trumpet of salvation sound for so great a King.” (The second clause is “Exsultent divina mysteria,” not “… divini ministri.”)
    “Wherefore I entreat you, most dear brethren, who are here present in the wonderful brightness [miram … claritatem] of this holy light, to invoke with me the mercy of almighty God. That He who has been pleased to number me, without any merits of mine, among the Levites, would pour forth his brightness [luminis sui claritatem infundens] upon me, and enable me to celebrate the praise of this candle.” In the new translation, “claritatem,” brightness, goes from “glory” to “light unshadowed.” There is no adjective in the Latin modifying “claritatem.”
    “Therefore, on this sacred night, receive, holy Father, the flame of evening sacrifice, which holy Church presents to you by the hands of your ministers in the solemn offering of this Candle of wax, the work of bees.” (The Latin does not have both bees and servants collaborating on the candle.)

    As I say, the new translation is a lot better than the paraphrase we have been using, but it could be even better — not that the St. Andrew translation was perfect either; it took its own liberties of syntax, while preserving the concepts.

  4. I had been ambivalent about the new translations which have caused such controversy. But this, I am not fond of…

    Is this also just a new translation of the latin or is the original itself being altered?

  5. Chris-2-4, I’ve compared the Latin, as found on wikipedia, with the full English text of the musical setting which Deacon Greg linked. The new English version is a translation of the official Latin, not an alteration.

  6. Once again this year, I will hand this off to my brother deacon! I am not sure my beloved parishioners would be soothed by me singing, as Dylan I do sound!

  7. Why not just sing it in Latin? A far less awkward and much more beautiful option for the high point of the liturgical year. (This would not be such a challenge if more deacons routinley chanted the Gospel every week.)

  8. Mike E., it looks to me as if they have preserved the music of the Exultet. The new translation seems to have been made to fit the ancient music.

  9. Anthony, I think for most deacons singing it in Latin would present a language challenge on top of an already formidable musical challenge. (And it adds a language barrier for most of the laity as well.)

    It’s a long time since I’ve heard a gospel chanted, but the tone for the gospel, as I recall it, is not anything like either part of the Exultet, which begins with a melody unlike any I’m familiar with anywhere else, and then switches to the solemn tone of the preface (which would belong to the priest, not the deacon, in an ordinary Mass).

    As to whether the Latin words of the Exultet are easier to chant to the melody, I have no idea.

  10. Guess what. It took me many years to master this current version. I get to sing it one more time. We will have a new deacon in our parish come September and he is a far better musician/vocalist than I am. I will gladly turn the Exultet over to him and let him deal with the new translation.

    In my area of my diocese, I am probably the only deacon who sings this anyway. No one else wants to touch it.

  11. Chant was written to proclaim a Latin text, so yes, singing them in Latin makes sense. The prefaces are a pretty clear example and I think prove the point as most priests no longer bother to chant these anymore, even on high holy days.

    My point is not that the Gospel tone resembles the Exultet, but rather that consistent practice of chant and familiarity with neums would raise the level. Imagine that, Gregorian Chant in a Roman Catholic Church.

    Most of the laity would love chant well preformed, give them the translation. There not as stupid as you think.

    The Orthodox have no instuments in there churchs and the entire liturgy is chanted — as it was in once in the Latin Church.

  12. It is going to be hard to say goodbye to the present text, which is so familiar. Fortunately the chant (with a few small exceptions to accommodate the new translation) is essentially the same, but it will take some time to get used to and to become completely comfortable singing it. (I intend to start working on preparing the new translation as soon as the Easter season ends this year.)

    I do think that because the Exsultet is (uniquely) chanted in the dark with only the light of the Paschal candle and the individual candles of the congregation to provide light, and because it is the great proclaimation of the resurrection of the Lord, and to be able to enter fully, consciously and actively into the prayer itself, it should be sung in the vernacular, all other things being equal. While in other contexts the assembly can follow a Latin text using a translation in their worship aid, in the dark this is difficult if not impossible to do.

    I’ve participated in an Easter Vigil during which the Exsultet was chanted magnificently in Latin, and while it was beautiful it was incomprehensible to the entire assembly.

    The new translation, while in my opinion not anywhere as lyrical as the present translation that we are using for the last time this Easter Vigil, does bring us much closer to the vocabulary and the complete text of the Latin original. And bring back the bees!

    Perhaps the return of the bees to the Exsultet will take the ‘sting’ out of having to learn to sing the new text.

  13. As a singer who learned early on (one praepedutic course in) that he was too old for the diaconate, I think that maybe something that could help those deacons who are afraid to sing the Exsultet might be a simplified version of the chant — something more like a psalm tone. The model: the old Graduale Simplex. What do the deacons here think? It would not be hard for me to write.

  14. Unfortunately, for all the touting of the new translation’s exact rendering of the Latin, it translates “mother bee” in the plural.

    Those who know the history of this text know that apis mater was understood to be an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary–one of the most charming aspects of the bee references in the Exsultet. I wrote about this in Commonweal.
    http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/virgil-vigil-0

    Mother bees? Forsooth!

  15. Rita, please tell ICEL about this! The new translation doesn’t come into effect until 2012. There should be time for them to correct it. (Perhaps it’s only a copyist’s error.)

  16. I had the opportunity to visit an Orthodox church last week and the first thing I noticed upon walking in was the heavy smell of honey from the pure beeswax candles they use. It was amazing. Such a beautiful scent to rise up with prayers and incense.

    So, bring back the bees! :-)

  17. To follow up with Rita’s comment, the reference to ‘bees/honey/mother bee’ was more than just a poetic comment. In the ancient church and especially in the middle ages, there was a whole spirituality based on the “sweetness (dulcedo in latin)” of God. It is a very rich biblical spirituality (taste and know the Lord is sweet), rooted in a sapiential dimension and uses aspects of the bee’s life as metaphors. So just the mention of this in the Exultet would have many rich meanings back then that can fly right by us.

  18. The new English translation (actually, more of a transliteration) seems cumbersome, although I do like the full translation honoring those industrious little bees.

  19. Peace to all.. I hope you will allow me to ‘watch’ as time goes on… I too, will be singing the current Exsultet for the last time, and will need to get started learning the new one immediately after Easter….are there any links at all to an mp3/wav file of the melody at all?

  20. Hurray for the improved translation…and hurray for the Exultet that loves poetic liturgy that endures! Happy Easter…

    can’t wait for the one next year!!!

  21. At 75 yo, I was asked to chant the Exsultet this year.
    Probably won’t happen again but I am glad I will not have to sing all those’exsults’ in the first line. Rejoice is much more poetic and kind to the cantor. Exsult hits our ears like bricks.

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