About this blogger:
A theorist, organist, and conductor, Jeff Ostrowski holds his B.M. in Music Theory from the University of Kansas (2004), and did graduate work in Musicology. He serves as choirmaster for the new FSSP parish in Los Angeles, where he resides with his wife and children.
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“The cemeteries are full of people who thought they were indispensable.”
— Fr. Alan Heet, OFM

A Word About Hymns . . . OK, A Few Words!
published 17 February 2013 by Jeff Ostrowski

OR THOSE INTERESTED in my opinions, I have written a fair amount about Catholic hymnody here [url] and here [url]. But I expect I will never be “finished” talking about hymns. For the record, I love hymns. For years, I did not love hymns, but that was because I was not exposed to great hymns. Now that I think about it, I also wrote about hymns here [url]. I will try my best not to repeat what I have already said in the aforementioned articles, but (as you might expect) this could prove difficult. I have been known to criticize priests who preach long, rambling sermons relating to the congregation “everything they know”: but now the shoe is on the other foot, as I sit here trying to resist the temptation to tell “everything I know” about hymns … because it is all so interesting!

Augustus Edmonds Tozer (d. 1910) was an English organist who edited a famous Catholic Hymnal which he called (with great originality) “Catholic Church Hymnal.” I think it first appeared around 1905. As I have already implied (in those articles) most of the stuff that appeared in those early Catholic vernacular hymnals was pretty much … garbage. What is hilarious (to me, at least) is reading what Tozer says on the very first page of his Preface:

I have not included the proper plain-chant melodies to the translated Breviary hymns, believing them to be unsuitable when sung to words in the vernacular. I have, on the other hand, retained several more or less traditional tunes, absolutely valueless and without merit from a musical point of view, but which seem to have become a necessity if a book is to appeal— as I hope this one will— to the varied needs of various churches. [my emphasis]

I would have changed his word “several” to “a whole bunch,” and if you read my previous articles, or this one [url] (which I just remembered), you will see that Adrian Fortescue and many others agree with this notion.

I have recently been thinking about hymns quite a bit, since two days ago I released 800 pages of organ accompaniments for the Campion Missal [url]. A good portion of these pages are hymn harmonizations, and you can view both volumes here:

     *  Organ Accompaniments for the Campion Hymnal [url]

I am so glad that I included a lot of different harmonizations and transpositions for the hymns. There is no “perfect” accompaniment for a hymn. After all, there can be many beautiful and adequate harmonizations. What range is good? SATB range is different than congregational. If your cantor has a low voice, a lower accompaniment is good. If he has a higher voice, a higher version would be preferred. Some organists have a “transposer” button on their organs, but many do not. Some organists cannot play hymns with a difficult key signature. This also has an effect. Usually, D Major, C Major, B-flat Major, G Major, F Major, and E-flat Major are “safe” keys. What about a pedal line? Should that be included? What about descants? What about passing tones? Should those be included? Some organists (myself included) add these only for certain verses. When will the hymn be sung? In the morning, the range should be lower. At night, the range should be higher. By the way, “range” is not the same as “tessitura.” The acoustics of the Church have an impact. Furthermore, sometimes the organist can “build”: in other words, play two verses at a lower key, then improvise into a higher key for the final verse. There are hundreds more considerations, and this is why I am so glad our newest book includes different versions for many of the hymns. I believe that more than half of the hymns are given in more than one key.

P.S.  Some organists claim they can “transpose at sight.” However, I personally have only met a handful of organists who can do this. Sometimes organists say they can transpose at sight … until you ask them for a demonstration! Other organists claim they can transpose at sight … and when it comes time for them to do it, they slow the tempo WAY DOWN. I cannot transpose at sight, except for rather simple pieces. If you are an organist who can genuinely transpose at sight, please know you are special !!! My hat is off to you.