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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“Come now,” they said, “Thou who wouldst destroy the temple and build it up in three days, rescue Thyself; come down from that cross, if Thou art the Son of God.”
— Gospel of St. Matthew 27:42

When People Lie About Hymns Unwittingly
published 9 September 2019 by Jeff Ostrowski

HINK ABOUT THOSE IN YOUR LIFE whom you respect. I bet they are people who know how to listen. A good friend doesn’t prattle on; a good friend allows you an opportunity to speak. On the other hand, when we are young and immature, we have boundless energy to argue 1 with others. (Perhaps you were a good listener when you were young, but I wasn’t.) A mature person realizes certain people are incapable of rational thought, and nowhere is this more true than in the domain of hymnody.

I received a disturbing email about the following video, for which I sang Tenor:

The author of this unsolicited email was apoplectic. Claiming to be an “expert” in hymnody, he declared that this hymn (WESTMINSTER ABBEY) can only be sung in triple meter—and accused me of committing a “desecration” by singing the hymn as it appears in the Brébeuf hymnal.

This man was not telling the truth.

While it certainly is correct to sing this tune in triple time, the man failed to realize that many famous hymnals modify—in a troubling way—the hymn’s original rhythm, by Henry Purcell (d. 1695). If triple meter is chosen, I feel the original version should be used. Indeed, I would very much like to ask the editors of the New English Hymnal (among others) why they felt the need to “improve” Purcell’s rhythm. More importantly, the belligerent author of that email should educate himself, because tons of hymns are sung in both triple and quadruple time—and both are fully correct. The most obvious example is “O Sacred Head Surrounded” (Mein G’müt ist mir verwirret), whose rhythm has been modified for so many decades by hymnal editors that 99% of Catholics don’t realize the original triple meter has been changed.

More Examples • “Quadruple vs. Triple”

Let’s consider a few more examples to make sure no doubt remains. Perhaps you know the marvelous hymn tune called BRESLAU:


BRESLAU is frequently printed in triple time, such as this example from the “Hymnal for the Hours” (GIA, 1989), which was edited by, among others, Fr. Samuel F. Weber, OSB, of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana. Doing so is 100% correct:


Perhaps you know the Common Meter tune named BEDFORD:


This same tune is frequently printed in triple meter—and doing so is fully correct:


Let’s give one final example. Consider the famous hymn tune called PUER NOBIS NASCITUR:


For hundreds of years, PUER NOBIS NASCITUR has also been sung in triple time—and doing so is fully correct:


Should Catholics Respond To False Attacks?

IT IS NOT DIFFICULT to think of discouraging problems choirmasters must face these days. The acceptance of goofy music—completely uninspired and eminently “forgettable”—is rife in the Catholic Church. Sometimes it helps to remember that there is no “perfect time” in the life of the Church to which we can return. In the 19th century, bizarre music was printed in standard hymnals. For instance, can you imagine replacing the authentic plainsong version with something like this?

81709 sperabo

That piece—and tons more like it—appeared in one of the better hymnals of the time, published in 1859 with Breviary translations by Fr. Thomas J. Potter, who served as a professor at All Hallows Seminary in Dublin. So I guess lousy church music is nothing new.

At the same time, it can be frustrating to encounter malice and ignorance from the so-called “traditional” Catholic camp. Recently, the scores posted on the Saint Goupil Website were attacked by someone involved in “traditional” Catholic publishing. His denunciation was based upon the fact that the Goupil scores have two English translations. He failed to understand this was done deliberately! We provide two translations because one is poetic and the other is word-for-word. Needless to say, the attacker’s ignorance is breathtaking; and he’s not an anomaly.

To be honest, I’ve seen it all when it comes to online criticism. Perhaps the most absurd was an organist in the Midwest who attacked the Brébeuf hymnal because he claimed its pages were “too beautiful, too carefully researched, and too comprehensive.” Reading comments like that, it becomes obvious that some people just want to attack, no matter how silly their arguments sound. Usually it starts with one person; when others see an attack taking place, they want to “get in on the action,” even if they have nothing of value to add. Then others start to pile on, without realizing it’s sinful to spread false information. Our policy is never to respond to vicious attacks found on websites, forums, comboxes, and blogs because it never leads to anything good. Moreover, no serious person should respond to anonymous attacks.

Getting back to ignorance about hymns, below is my favorite example. Someone who pretends to be an expert will usually make the following three (3) assertions, all of which are false:

(a) The melody is different than the standard version of EISENACH, so that’s a “mistake.”

(b) The text is “O Amor quam ecstaticus,” so it should have been paired with the melody called O AMOR QUAM ECSTATICUS, so that’s a “mistake.”

(c) EISENACH is usually used for “The God Whom Earth, and Sea, and Sky” and cannot be married to any other text, so that’s a “mistake.”

81708 sperabo

None of the items on that list are actually mistakes, but I do wonder why the editor doubled the third of the chord (cf. pink arrows). For more on that, please see this discussion. Since we are getting away from the main topic, this seems like a good place to end the article. Thanks for reading!


1   As a young man, I came into contact—through email—with an organist from New Jersey who kept attacking me for using the word “Recessional.” He insisted there was no such thing as a recessional. He said the correct and proper term was “Final Processional.” When I showed him the dictionary, which has “Recessional” as correct, he declared that whoever made the dictionary was wrong and foolish. But because I was young, I kept arguing, and it was a complete waste of time. To this day, this nincompoop won’t admit his error.