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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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When you consider that the greatest hymns ever written—the plainchant hymns—are pushing the age of eight hundred and that the noble chorale hymn tunes of Bach date from the early eighteenth century, then what is the significance of the word “old” applied to “Mother at Thy Feet Is Kneeling”? Most of the old St. Basil hymns date from the Victorian era, particularly the 1870s and 1880s.
— Paul Hume (1956)

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The Most Popular Hymn Tunes? • A List
published 18 December 2018 by Jeff Ostrowski

Y COMPUTER CURRENTLY contains hundreds of “hymn tune folders” allowing me to conveniently compare all the different harmonizations of a particular hymn. For example, if we are talking about EISENACH, I can see how it was harmonized in the New Westminster Hymnal, Ted Marier’s hymnal, the Mediator Dei Hymnal, the London Oratory hymnal, the New Saint Basil Hymnal, and so on. Sometimes, I have as many as 15 different harmonizations for a single hymn tune. You see, my primary involvement with the Brébeuf Hymnal had to do with the melodies.

Which melodies were the most popular? The following come from THE NINE. (Nine hymnals I judged to be the finest and most important.) When you see “11” or “10” that means certain hymnals used a melody more than once. A computer generated this list:

11 – AVE VIRGO VIRGINUM
11 – REGENT SQUARE
11 – SALZBURG
11 – WINCHESTER NEW
11 – WAREHAM
11 – OLD HUNDREDTH
11 – PASSION CHORALE
11 – PUER NOBIS NASCITUR
11 – LASST UNS ERFREUEN
11 – ELLACOMBE
10 – VULPIUS
10 – ST THOMAS (Webbe)
10 – ST FLAVIAN
10 – SONG 34
10 – EISENACH
10 – DULCE CARMEN
10 – AUSTRIA
9 – STUTTGART
9 – VENI EMMANUEL
9 – TALLIS CANON
9 – STABAT MATER
9 – ST THEODULPH
9 – ROCKINGHAM
9 – ORIENTIS PARTIBUS
9 – ORIEL
9 – OLD 112TH
9 – MELCOMBE
9 – INNSBRUCK
9 – DUNDEE
8 – ST COLUMBA
8 – O FILII ET FILIAE
8 – NUN DANKET
8 – HYFRYDOL
8 – GROSSER GOTT
8 – EASTER HYMN
8 – DIVINUM MYSTERIUM
8 – DEUS TUORUM MILITUM
8 – BRESLAU

I was thrilled to see this list. All those melodies are prominently featured in the Brébeuf Hymnal, with the exception of DUNDEE.

A new hymn tradition? Nope.

The Brébeuf Hymnal committee did not attempt to create a brand new tradition of hymn singing. The majority of tunes are known and loved by Catholics. Consider the following hymns—published with an 1876 IMPRIMATUR—which appeared in Boston:

    * *  PDF Excerpts from a Catholic Hymn Book (1877)

Every single melody in that PDF was included in the Brébeuf hymnal. For example, the melody found on page 34:


Fun Fact: Do you remember what Archbishop Fulton Sheen said about Heaven? He said if we make it there, two things will surprise us: (1) people we thought would be in Heaven won’t be; (2) people we didn’t think would make it there will be. During this project, two things surprised us. On the one hand, we encountered people who bragged loudly about their knowledge—but, in fact, knew virtually nothing about hymnody (and what they did “know” was erroneous). 1 On the other hand, some approached us claiming to know very little about hymns—yet these often turned out to be incredibly knowledgeable. I guess the lesson is: Don’t be intimidated by people who talk a big game; and don’t dismiss the humble.

Can A Melody Be Catholic?

There is no debate regarding whether a text is Catholic. When you open up the Brébeuf Hymnal, you will see that every page contains Catholic texts—Pange Lingua, Sancti Venite, Christe Redemptor, Auctor Beate Saeculi, Rex Sempiterne, and so on—translated by Catholic priests and bishops. We did make exceptions for a few Protestant texts (e.g. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing) but such texts constitute a tiny, inconsequential percentage. We had no problem finding rich and powerful Catholic texts; e.g. Analecta Hymnica by Fr. Dreves contains 10,000 ancient hymns!

But can a melody be Catholic?

Can something inherent in a pattern of notes make it Catholic or Protestant? Such a question has no easy answer. Generally speaking, there are three schools of thought:

1. Guido d’Arezzo Approach

Guido d’Arezzo is credited with formulating the notes of the scale: DO, RE, MI, FA, SOL, LA, TI. Some argue that any melodies using the scale tones—pretty much every hymn ever written—is de facto a Catholic melody. There is logic here, but the Brébeuf Hymnal committee did not take this approach.

2. Melodic Fragment Approach

Many hymn melodies are falsely attributed to Protestant composers. Some say “Martin Luther” or “J.S. Bach”—but many of these are, in fact, plainsong melodies which Martin Luther or Bach (or whoever) took from the Catholic church. Indeed, the vast majority of hymn tunes consist of melodic phrases which can be found in plainsong, whether Solesmes or Nivers, although the rhythm is not always the same. The “melodic fragment approach” is based on sound logic. After all, when a Protestant denomination adopts Veni Creator Spiritus or Pater Noster or Ad Coenam Agni, those prayers don’t become Protestant—they remain Catholic.

3. Brébeuf Approach

The Brébeuf Hymnal committee built upon the “melodic fragment approach”—except for melodies strongly associated with the Protestant Revolution, such as Amazing Grace or Ein feste Burg, which we excluded. On the other hand, certain tunes have become “neutral.” That is to say, centuries ago they had negative associations, but not anymore. We did not exclude excellent hymn melodies which are neutral—especially if those melodies have been found in outstanding Catholic hymnals for a long time.

Let me reiterate: There is no dispute about what makes a hymn TEXT Catholic; but when it comes to what makes a MELODY Catholic, that is a more difficult—even for experts. What I have called the “Brébeuf Approach” is nothing new. For example, notice how the New Westminster Hymnal (Roman Catholic) excluded Protestant texts…but please carefully examine the melody:

    * *  PDF Excerpt from New Westminster Hymnal (IMPRIMATUR 1939)

Someone who is “very strict” (but misinformed) would exclude O Sacred Head Surrounded—because that melody was originally a secular dance. Someone who is “very strict” (but misinformed) will forbid the pipe organ at Mass, since it was originally a secular instrument and hence was excluded from Catholic worship. Over time, the pipe organ lost those associations and now is held up as the preëminent instrument by Church documents. The three approaches outlined above demonstrate the nuances of this issue. 2



NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:

1   More than one person claiming to be “the world’s hymn expert” had only seen 1-2 hymnals. Indeed, one American adamantly refused to believe any other hymnal was published except the one he knew. The Brébeuf Hymnal draws on hundreds of hymnals from across the globe—it is not limited to a handful of hymnals. This was absolutely crucial.

2   How does this work in real life? Consider SONG 9 by Orlando Gibbons, which has a bunch of names: Song 34, Angel’s Song, Come Kiss Mee With Those Lips Of Thine, Thus Angells Sung, and so forth. This is one of the most beautiful melodies I know. The provenance would seem to be Protestant, right? Not so fast; the original versions were set to books of the Bible (Lk 2:13 and Song of Songs) and the Bible is “a Catholic book written for Catholics,” as Fr. Leslie Rumble reminds us. More importantly, every single phrase in this hymn can be found in Gregorian chants. Finally, its Protestant associations faded away centuries ago. The New Westminster Hymnal, perhaps the greatest Catholic hymnal of the last 100 years, agrees with us.