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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“It is very curious, rather barbarous, much too ornate, immeasurably less dignified than ours now, anything in the world rather than archaic or primitive.”
— Fr. Fortescue describing the “Sarum Use” in 1912

Rorate Caeli • “Very Ancient Catholic Song”
published 5 December 2017 by Jeff Ostrowski

ELIEVE IT OR NOT, researching the composers and arrangers often requires significantly more time than typesetting musical notes for the St. Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal. Sometimes it feels like we are creating a doctoral dissertation on each hymn writer—but we feel it is important to always have access to the original text as the artist published it, even though sometimes adjustments are made based on the principles adopted by the hymn committee.

The Brébeuf hymnal will contain terrific information about the composers, hymn writers, sources, and so forth—but things didn’t used to be like this. Roman Catholic hymnals were notorious for including zero tunes names, zero composer names, and often listed the source as “ancient melody” or “sublime air” or “traditional text.” The Parochial Hymn Book, published in England (1897) by Fr. Anatole Police, usually lists the source as “ancient hymn.” Perhaps he could have done a better job of (wait for it…) policing his attributions.

For some reason, he dubs Rorate Coeli a “Very Ancient Catholic Chant.”

3725 Rorate Coeli

There is one exception to the rule followed by Fr. Police. Many pieces in this collection are given the attribution of “Rev. A Police.” 1

I understand why hymnals used to be done in such a way, but I am glad for how things have changed. One of the pioneers in this area was J. Vincent Higginson, who wrote under the pen name of “Cyr de Brant.”

Mr. Higginson wrote about his own hymnal:

A distinctive feature of the Mediator Dei Hymnal is the naming of the tunes and listing of their metric schemes. This practice is, unfortunately, all too rare in American hymn publications. It is hoped that other hymnals will in time adopt these names (they are free to do so) in order that unity in this regard will prevail in future years. Naming the tunes in a uniform manner makes the identification of these tunes a simple matter, and a knowledge of the meter enables one to apply an alternate melodic setting to a given text when this seems to be called for. The choice of names given here is proposed as a first classification for use in all future hymn collections. The accompaniment edition is adapted to the abilities of the less experienced organist.

The argument could be made that the St. Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal will be—in some ways—the successor of the Mediator Dei Hymnal.


1   The same is true of the St. Gregory Hymnal, which attributes tons of hymns to its editor, “NAM.” That stands for “Nicola A. Montani,” founder of the St. Gregory Society, who died in 1948.