DETAILED REVIEW of the Brébeuf Hymnal recently appeared in Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal, which is published by the Society for Catholic Liturgy. The review was written by Dr. Aaron James, who currently serves as choirmaster at Holy Family Catholic Church, run by clergy from the Oratory of St. Philip Neri. Before I encountered this review, I had never heard of Dr. Aaron James—but his credentials are stellar. According to Google, he earned a double doctorate (Organ+Musicology) from Eastman, a very fine conservatory. 1 The review appears in volume 23.2. Dr. James clearly spent considerable effort examining this new and unique hymnal. His time is quite valuable, and I am deeply grateful he deemed the Brébeuf Hymnal worthy of exploration. Someday I hope to meet Dr. James—and I’ll thank him for “spreading the word” about the Brébeuf project. He is a skilled writer, and his review has an overarching “shape” which is praiseworthy.
The review is generally quite positive. Dr James says: “The editors of the Brébeuf Hymnal have done a great service to the profession” in this “extensively researched volume,” which is “worthy of careful study by liturgical musicians.” Time and again, Dr. James expresses admiration for the research that went into this hymnal. For example, consider his statement on page 199:
This detailed exploration of classic Latin hymnody and its English translations is not only a labor of love, but an original contribution to research, and I hope that the results of this research project are shared more widely for the use of musicologists and liturgical historians.
I would, however, like to make a few corrections to the review by Dr. James. This is not intended as “nitpicking”—rather, my response is in the spirit of the old journals, wherein authors would engage in “public disagreements” which were often enjoyable and educational for the readership.
Inaccurate Statement • “Austria” Initial Repeat
On page 201, Dr. James accuses the Brébeuf editors of a “sometimes cavalier handling of classic musical material,” saying that “numerous tunes have been metrically altered.” For example, he says AUSTRIA appears “unaccountably, in an abbreviated form without the repeat of the first phrase, destroying the musical symmetry” and “infuriating anyone who knows the original tune.” This statement by Dr. James is fallacious. This form of AUSTRIA has been printed in Catholic hymnals for at least 150 years; it is not an “alteration” perpetrated by the Brébeuf editors. Consider how it appeared in one of the most popular Catholic pew books ever printed, viz. the Saint Basil Hymnal (1918):
Indeed, the Tantum Ergo was often sung in precisely that way. Yet, other texts were also sung in the way which Dr. James erroneously claims will infuriate “anyone who knows the original tunes.” Consider the Hymnal and Vesperal for the Ecclesiastical Year (1878), published with the approbation of Most Rev. James Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore:
Dr. James was unaware of this 150+ year tradition, and inadvertently propagated misinformation. Perhaps the editors of Antiphon could add a correction to some future volume?
(Erroneous statements were also made about other Brébeuf melodies; I would welcome an opportunity to address all of them at some point.)
Inaccurate Assumption • Multiple Tunes and Texts
Dr. James makes an incorrect assumption (cf. pp. 199-200) regarding what he calls the “idiosyncratic pedagogical plan.” He seems to believe that congregations using the Brébeuf Hymnal must sing all the translations and melodies for each hymn provided. This is not correct. These options were provided to give the choirmaster flexibility. Suppose a particular congregation would struggle with a particularly athletic melody. Or suppose the choirmaster believes a particular translation sounds “too archaic.” Or suppose a particular translation brings out a theological aspect of a certain verse more vividly. Or suppose the choirmaster needs to use a common melody, since a more unfamiliar version has not yet been introduced to the congregation. These are a few reasons a particular melody or translation might be chosen; but attempting to use every single option the hymnal provides would be foolish.
Dr. James attempted to prove such flexibility is “bewildering” (page 199) by talking about Conditor Alme Siderum. I don’t want to get too technical, but I must say he chose poorly—because that hymn is quite a special case, and deserves all the “attention” it got. (Entire dissertations could be written about that hymn, its content, its revisions, its theology, its melodies, and so forth.)
The Single Numbering System Is Not Confusing
Dr. James speaks of the “logistical confusion of finding one’s place in a hymnal with so much duplication.” It is difficult to understand what confusion could occur because the Brébeuf Hymnal carefully avoided a “double” numbering system. (Anyone who’s encountered hymnals with page numbers and hymn numbers will recall how frustrating those systems are.) When using the Brébeuf Hymnal, if the hymn is 322, simply turn to number 322. If the hymn is 456, simply turn to number 456. We use the hymnal every Sunday at my parish; nobody gets confused.
Furthermore, there is something that needs to be said. Some ancient hymns have risen to a place of great importance: theologically, historically, and liturgically. In the Brébeuf Hymnal, such hymns are given a more robust treatment. (Some examples would be Pange Lingua, Vexilla Regis Prodeunt, Sancti Venite, and Ad Cenam Agni Providi.) I feel that Dr. James should have mentioned this, rather than leaving the impression that random and insignificant hymns are thoughtlessly given multiple melodies. 2
A Bizarre Suggestion
On page 200, Dr. James criticized the optional melodies in the Brébeuf Hymnal, and proceeded to make the following statement:
In this digital age, anyone who wishes can underlay any text to any tune and produce a typeset version of near-professional quality for their choir; this reduces the practical value of printing alternate tunes, as anyone who is unhappy with the hymnal’s chosen tune can substitute another with minimal effort.
The suggestion that a choirmaster can “simply” produce alternate versions of hymns for the congregation, choir, and organist is utterly bizarre. Having directed choirs for 20 years, I can say this without reservation! Loose-leaf papers quickly get lost, or members of the choir misplace them. Moreover, typing out the precise version of the lyrics takes quite an effort (to say nothing of attributions, translations, titles, copyright information, and so on). Remember that each hymnal has slightly different versions of the texts, the most famous example being the New Saint Basil Hymnal (1958), which inexplicably made slight alterations to almost every text and harmonization.
Misunderstandings About Hymnal Indices
On page 203, Dr. James takes issue with the placement of the Brébeuf index, which he says is confusing. But there’s really nothing confusing about it. Indeed, the placement of the index is hardly an innovation; many liturgical books don’t place the index at the end of the book. For example, Mass & Vespers (Solesmes Abbey, 1957)—perhaps the greatest liturgical book ever published—places their index 167 pages from the back of the book! To put that in perspective, the Liber Cantualis is only 118 pages long; no sane person would claim 167 pages is insignificant.
More importantly, those who have spent a long time with hymnal indices—and I certainly have—realize how frustrating the standard ones can be. Indeed, many of them require an index for the indices! For example, the indices for GIA Worship IV Hymnal constitute about 60 pages. There are no page numbers, so one must spend hours thumbing through items such as:
Acknowledgments (on page ???)|;
Hymns for the Church Year (on page ???)|;
Scripture Passages Related to Hymns (on page ???)|;
Index of Psalms and Canticles (on page ???)|;
(their) Liturgical Index (on page ???)|;
(their) Topical Index (on page ???)|;
Metrical Index (on page ???)|;
Tune Index (on page ???)|;
Index of Service Music (on page ???)|;
Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc.
It’s a complete mess. Furthermore, by deliberately making their index difficult to use, they probably hope people won’t notice how their book basically contains only a handful of decent tunes which they’ve been selling over and over for fifty years. A similar tactic is employed in hymnals which are alphabetical; that makes it virtually impossible to notice gaping holes in the hymn selections. Unsuspecting users don’t notice these tricks, but it’s time they did.
The Brébeuf Hymnal brilliantly solves such problems. One simply turns to the back of the book, where a beautiful sheet of paper shows one exactly where one needs to go. It may not be exactly like every other hymnal, but who cares? It saves a massive amount of time and eliminates tons of frustration.
False Claims About Missing Tunes
On page 201, Dr. James calls the lack of Gregorian melodies in the Brébeuf Hymnal a “significant impoverishment,” but there is no justification for such a claim. Serious publishers realize that no book can be “all things to all people.” Indeed, the worst hymnals are those which thoughtlessly and recklessly include little bits of pieces of everything. Imagine an EVANGELIARIUM which also contains several Offertory antiphons or Victoria’s setting of O Magnum Mysterium; it would be absurd. Serious book editors must ruthlessly reject every temptation to include items which don’t belong.
The Brébeuf Hymnal was designed to contain metrical hymns which can be sung well by a congregation. Period. 3
On page 201, Dr. James says Gregorian hymns notation should have been included “for use by the choir”—but he forgot he was reviewing a book intended for the congregation. A congregation can (probably) sing the most basic Gregorian melodies, such as Jesu Dulcis Memoria, although the choirmaster must never allow such melodies to drag. I have yet to hear any congregation sing the more complicated melodies adequately. Consider these examples of Gregorian hymnody:
Such delicate and exquisite melodies have no business being included in a hymnal dedicated to metrical hymns for the congregation. Intelligent choirmasters who direct choirs in real life—as opposed to “internet loudmouths”—realize that very few congregations could sing such pieces properly. Such pieces are better left to the choir. Besides, choirmasters who desire such pieces can already find them available in a billion places, such as:
The Liber Usualis (Solesmes Abbey, 1961)|
Cantus Selecti (Solesmes Abbey, 1957)|
Parish Book of Chant (Richard Rice, 2012)|
The Liber Hymnarius (Solesmes Abbey, 1983)|
Cantus Varii (Solesmes Abbey, 1923)|
Hymnal for the Hours (Fr. Samuel Weber, 2014)|
The Liber Antiphonarius (Solesmes Abbey, 1949)|
Mass and Vespers (Solesmes Abbey, 1957)|
A Plainsong Hymnbook (Sir Sydney Nicholson, 1932)|
Hymnarium (Dominican Province of St. Joseph, 2013)
The Brébeuf Hymnal pew edition is 932 pages. The organ accompaniment is 1,292 pages. The Choral Supplement—scheduled to be released in about seven weeks—is also hundreds of pages long. Footnotes and references are found at the bottom of each page, in small type. Dr. James could not be expected to master every aspect of this massive, innovative hymnal, and the mistakes he made in his review should not be held against him.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 This is exceptionally rare. Indeed, in my entire life, I have only encountered two people who earned a double doctorate.
2 While we are on the subject of “thoughtless actions,” Dr. James (footnote 7) says one of the texts must have been copied “from a modern hymnal by mistake.” In response, I can only gently suggest that Dr. James consult page 566 in the Brébeuf Hymnal with greater diligence. When it comes to the Brébeuf texts, absolutely nothing was done without deep deliberation. The approach taken is explained on page 566, which was deliberately placed right before the color pages so it cannot be missed.
3 To be clear, the Brébeuf editorial committee is acutely aware of the beauty of Gregorian hymns. Indeed, one of the members (a Catholic priest) is probably the world’s expert on Gregorian hymns. Nevertheless, we had an obligation to be faithful to the goal. Readings, psalms, propers, Gregorian hymns, motets—none of these were appropriate to include; and exceptions were rare.