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 Catholic Church has a dignity far surpassing that of every merely human society, for it was founded by Christ the Lord. It is altogether fitting, therefore, that the language it uses should be noble, majestic, and non-vernacular.”
— Blessed John XXIII (22 February 1962)

Why The Vatican II Hymnal Is The Best Hymn Book Ever Of All Time!
published 14 May 2013 by Jeff Ostrowski

LL RIGHT, so maybe the title of this Blog post employs a bit of hyperbole. But let me explain where I’m coming from on this. I’m really excited. On Sunday, we sang Dr. Neale’s English translation of “Aeterne Rex altissime,” which is number 360 in the Vatican II Hymnal. In this hymnal, it is paired with a lovely tune called WAREHAM.

You probably know that all the scores for all 750 pages of the Vatican II Hymnal are available online for free. Here’s the hymn I mentioned:

      * *  Hymn Number 360

I specifically chose and paired this tune with several texts because it’s a great melody. What’s interesting is that for several years I worried about the ending. People may or may not be aware of the fact that melodies have rules which they (generally) must obey. Certain intervals, careful use of stepwise motion, and many other things come together to make a great melody. In a few instances in the Vatican II Hymnal, I actually altered sections of traditional hymns because I couldn’t stand the way they were written. I thought I would be excoriated for this, but so far only a handful of people have noticed the changes.

What am I talking about? Well, take the tune CORONATION. The “normal” beginning of this melody goes like this:

My composition teachers would say this melody “suffers from wanderitis.” To borrow a phrase from Dr. Peter Wagner, the melody is “an undigested mass which keeps on turning around the same note in a senseless way.” I mean, once you create a melody like that, where do you stop? Why not just continue, like so?

However, the rest of the tune is fantastic, wonderful, gorgeous. So, I did the unthinkable. (GASP!!!!) I made a slight melodic change:

      * *  Hymn Number 225

By the way, I fully expect to get “hate mail” for these kind of changes. People take hymns very seriously, and they don’t like them to be changed. Hopefully the hate mail will not depress me too much . . .

It turns out that I was actually following a venerable tradition by making this change. My friend, who has a Doctorate in hymnology, told me that all through the centuries, people made slight melodic changes to the hymn tunes, and they got better and better as time went on.

IN ANY EVENT, to get back to my earlier point, I was concerned about the ending phrase. There are some problems with the tune, objectively speaking. For instance, there’s an awful lot of stepwise motion, and (in the last three bars) a real lack of direction for the melody. One could argue it sounds predictable, forced, and uninspired.

But here’s the good news! When I played the hymn on Sunday, I realized the overall melody (and harmonies!) are so powerful and strong, the “weak points” end up not presenting a problem. Somehow, it just “works.” Perhaps it is similar to the Mona Lisa “smile.”

In any event, it’s a really beautiful hymn that almost brought me to tears. I know the title of this post uses hyperbole, but I sincerely do hope you’ll check out the Vatican II Hymnal.