Editor’s Note: Each contributor is reflecting upon Comparison of 15 Traditional Catholic Hymnals. Rather than rehashing Mr. Craig’s article, they were given freedom to “expand upon” this vast subject. Click here to read all the installments that have appeared so far.
ANY THANKS to Daniel Craig for his recent article, which carefully laid out the “pros and cons” of 15 traditional Catholic hymnals. I work at an Extraordinary Form (EF) parish, so I tend to evaluate hymnals based on what would work well in my setting. If you’re an EF music director who’s looking for a new hymnal, you probably have some specific criteria in mind. Rather than steer you towards any specific hymnal on Mr. Craig’s list, I thought I’d jump into the discussion by offering a list of my own general preferences.
If I were choosing a new hymnal
for my Extraordinary Form parish
today, I’d want that hymnal to:
1. Include all eighteen (18) of the commonly used Gregorian settings of the ordinaries.
It puzzles me why publishers will include, say, ten of them but omit the others just to save a few pages. Why make judgment calls about which ones are the best? Yes, Missa de Angelis gets sung everywhere (except at my parish), and Masses IV and XI are also quite popular, but let’s give parishes the freedom to try, say, Mass VII.
2. Include all six (6) commonly used Credos.
It’s the same principle: my parish uses I and III exclusively, but I’d love to know that the others are there in case we ever feel adventurous.
3. Present the chant in a way that resembles the Liber Usualis.
Most of us are used to the way the chant looks in the Liber, and it doesn’t need improving except in crispness. With the software available today (many of us have used the Illuminare Score Editor), it should be easy for any publisher to re-set all the ordinaries as beautifully as they did in the Parish Book of Chant. No weird fonts. No excessively long lines of chant.
4. Not include numerous hymns for specific saints who only have third-class feasts.
A hymn to St. David is a wonderful thing to have if you happen to attend St. David Parish. Otherwise, there’s little chance you’ll ever sing that hymn.
5. Include the name of each hymn tune (not just the hymn).
In case you aren’t familiar: while the name of the text of the hymn appears in a large font at the top of the page, the name of the hymn tune usually appears in smaller block capitals somewhere on the page. For example, if your hymnal contains the hymn “Hail the Day that Sees Him Rise,” the name of the hymn tune, LLANFAIR, may also appear on the page. This is useful information because if you have a favorite hymn tune, you’ll be able to spot it easily even when it is set with other text.
6. Include hymn meters.
This is that series of numbers (such as 184.108.40.206) you’ll sometimes see next to the name of the hymn tune. The numbers tell you how many syllables of text each phrase of the hymn tune can support. This is extremely helpful for choir directors who want to find a new hymn tune for a particular text, or find new text to go with a favorite hymn tune. Instead of sitting there counting syllables (which I’ve had to do on occasion), the work is done for you, and you can simply flip through a hymnal to find good matches.
7. Include either four-part harmony or just the melody.
I’m always puzzled to see hymnals that present soprano and alto lines. Is the assumption that men will never sing? Let’s encourage parishes to develop SATB choirs by providing them with complete harmonizations. If they’re short on some voice types, it’s perfectly acceptable to have the organ fill in the missing parts.
8. Include hymns on a wide variety of “themes.”
Every hymnal will include many Christmas and Easter hymns, Eucharistic hymns, and hymns to Our Lady. That’s a good thing. But if a particular Sunday carries a strong theme of, say, mercy, it’s especially satisfying to have “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” at your fingertips, rather than singing “Holy God We Praise Thy Name” for the umpteenth time.
9. Avoid trying to do too much.
The choir will likely be made up of more advanced musicians than the congregation and will have access to its own specialized books or printouts. If the choir decides to sing a Gregorian Responsory during the Offertory, it’s all well and good to include it in the hymnal and post the number at the front of the church, but in my experience, very few people in the congregation will even attempt to sing it. Let’s all keep working towards a day when Catholic congregations are musically proficient. Until then, it seems like a waste of space to put dozens of specific, relatively obscure chants (as beautiful as they are) in a hymnal that’s intended primarily for congregational use. But congregations will begin to follow and sing along with Mass ordinaries, the seasonal Marian antiphons, and a few other chants—as well as favorite hymns—if they hear them enough.
10. Not sacrifice beauty for the sake of orthodoxy.
It’s always frustrating to come across hymns that have wonderfully orthodox text but are set to an utterly forgettable melody. Hymn tunes should lift the heart and intensify our belief in what we’re singing. As Catholics, we can and should “have it all”—solid hymn text and the best music. This is, of course, a subjective matter. Some may argue that a hymnal should stick to tunes that move in stepwise motion and have limited range so that congregations won’t be scared off from singing. I disagree; there’s a point at which music is so dull that nobody feels compelled to join in. Credo III isn’t easy and it jumps around the staff quite a bit, yet even parishioners with little or no musical training will join in with gusto because it’s a memorable tune. The solution, as I see it, is for our best Catholic musicians to marry the best text with the best melodies (see, this is why we need those hymn tune names and hymn meters!).
HE IDEAL hymnal for the EF can actually be a slim volume—and if I were designing a hymnal from scratch, I would aim for thoughtful quality over exhaustive quantity. Again, I don’t wish to steer you towards any specific book, but I do hope that having these criteria in hand will help you evaluate the 15 choices in Mr. Craig’s article.