Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Vatican II Hymnal: Book Review

Vatican II Hymnal, ed. Jeffrey Mark Ostrowski, Corpus Christi Watershed, Corpus Christ Texas, 2011, pp. 709 plus indices.


In some ways this is the hymnbook Catholics should have had 40, or even 30, years ago. Put briefly, it is a compendium of all the music and text needed for the worthy sung celebration of the revised form of the Roman Mass, supplemented with a modest collection of hymns and tunes that lie largely in the public domain. A good number of these hymns belong to the body of Catholic devotional verse that was available for extra-liturgical services like Benediction, or permitted to be sung in association with Low Mass; but most come from the riches received from other western Christian traditions (through their North American manifestations), thanks to Catholic entry into using the English-speaking hymn tradition at Mass, by way of the ecumenical exchange of gifts suggested from the Second Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism onwards and allowed for in the rubrics of the liturgy revisions under Paul VI.

At first glance, it may not look like such a contemporary resource for Catholic worship; but it is actually the print interface of a large online project to ensure that the mass reformed after Vatican II, especially when celebrated in the vernacular, benefits from access to Catholic liturgy's broad and continuous musical tradition in both Latin and English. So, technologically speaking, it would not have been possible to have this hymnal even ten years ago. Furthermore, the Vatican II Hymnal is issued through low-cost self-publishing to order; in other words, production costs do not reflect the business plan of a large book-publishing and distribution house. My hardback draft & review copy cost $17-91; and the final version edition is now ready at $19, costing less per copy the more you order. Also available are supplementary printed books for SATB choir or vocalists' settings of masses and responsorial psalms (notably Jeff Ostrowski's St Noel Chabanel psalm project; and Aristotle Esguerra's modal Responsorial Psalms) and for organ accompaniments, at similarly low prices, or by download to your computer. This in itself is an interesting development for the promotion of quality new writing for Church liturgy and hymn resources, as well as of familiar standard material (and there is also a remarkable parallel online resource providing all the propers in English and Latin with accompaniments). There is now no excuse for churches and their musicians to be bound to the printed books and collections stocked in the organ loft or the choir vestry, or to the poor mass music and low quality worship songs that have formed our habits for decades. For the Vatican II Hymnal not only provides a core repertoire, it also has the capacity to extend itself constantly with the compatible invention of new and restored resources on line.

But what is the Vatican II Hymnal like? Being for Catholic use, it is primarily a liturgical resource to put in order the music for the ordinary and the proper of the Mass, including appropriate "strophic", metrical hymns that can also be included in the Ordinary form of Mass. So it is a hymnale, not a hymnbook, that is a collection or approved selection of hymns. Thus its contents are arranged to serve the celebration of mass. This marks it out as different in structure and presentation from other hymnbooks, even those used and approved in Catholic circles. Thus it is almost a Sunday missal, lacking the variable prayers, but including the readings and the texts of the chants of the Proper of the Mass (think of the similar pages in the English Hymnal), that often neglected but in fact integral component of the Mass, which provides all the Scriptural texts of the variable chants at the Entrance, the Gradual (psalm between the readings), the Offertory and at Communion. Apart from the hymns (to which we will return), the Hymnal draws on a large body of work developed by Watershed, a charity founded in 1996 in the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas (see the links above). Watershed has expended considerable energy on collating music from the historic, liturgical patrimony (Gregorian and polyphonic) that can be newly deployed in the service of the revised form of mass - they do not need to have been set aside, and can be re-received. It has also been promoting the work of composers, who see their task is to develop fresh sacred music for the Ordinary Form of Mass (especially in view of the new translation) that stands in continuity with the same traditions as music written for the solemn sung musical celebration of Mass from before the Vatican II reforms, yet not in Latin but the vernacular. In this the group seeks to be in accord with the spirit of Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. The driving philosophy is that, while for most of us the revised form of mass in the vernacular seemed to mark a radical rupture from what went before, the Council Fathers actually envisaged not abolition but direct continuity - with some desirable organic develoment, certain improvements and corrections -and an aggiornamento, an updating, to enable the people of the present day to be drawn into and participate in the mass, "actively" (i.e. not merely attend as passive spectators) . Far from a wholesale change, the contention is that the Council sought previously obscured aspects of the Catholic tradition to be restored to them, through the growth and enrichment of what was already in place.


Yet, as is well known, in many if not most places, choirs, organs, Gregorian chant, motets and settings in Latin - and even singing the mass apart from some hymns - were abandoned. Two generations have passed since this rupture and we have become accustomed to folk groups, guitars and bands, liturgical music loosely similar to contemporary popular music (although not always of like quality and creative skill). There is also a body of supposedly distinctive Catholic non-hymnic worship songs, created because their advocates reject the English-language hymn tradition as essentially Protestant. Yet they resemble neither the English liturgical custom of strophic metrical hymns, nor the Roman Graduale's native tradition, whether in using Gregorian chant or other compositions to set the Proper (the Latin tradition is, at heart, to sing the psalms of the Bible at mass with responses). As Professor Paul Fiddes, the great English Baptist theologian, has often observed, you will get more Scripture heard and read at a Catholic mass than at many a Protestant service. But these "distinctively Catholic" liturgical songs are by no means always related to the Scriptures or to the Propers, and thus they stand in clear contrast to many a suitable and well chosen classic hymn, rooted in the metrical singing of psalms and the other Scriptures. This is all by way of saying that for years Catholic eucharistic musical worship in English has been in search of its idiom and identity. It began by adopting aspects of contemporary culture; it looked to some of the features of music and hymnody in the worship of ecumenical friends; it developed its own formats to meet the shape of parts of the renewed rite (eg the Gospel acclamation); and, in the influential minds of some leading Catholic "pastoral musicians", strove for a musical and doxological genre that could distinguish vernacular Catholic worship as different. The search has been protracted and hardly successful.

The reason is because it lost touch with its own underlying tradition, continuous for 1,500 years. In England, the Vatican II Constitution seeking to re-establish the solemn sung mass as the norm for Sunday worship - opening up the accessibility and implementation of the sung High Mass - has by and large not been implemented. Instead we have remained wedded to the idea of a spoken out Low Mass, with such additional material for singing as resources or inclination allow, as the intended and welcome manifestation of the reform. Thus, long since English became the norm, it is still usual at many a Sunday Mass for the psalm not to be sung, but to constitute a dialogue between the faithful and the reader. Even where the Alleluia is sung to one of a handful of tunes that people know (often the antiphon from the end of the old Vesperal Paschal Vigil, stuningly effective of in its annual simplicity, but devalued by overuse, as though we are incapable of encompassing anything more demanding), the verse is often merely said. The entrance chant and the communion antiphon as given in the missal, without their psalm verses, are declared as slogans where they are used at all. Few parishes can rely on a well known tune to which to sing the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus. The new translation of the Missal into English, backed with some firm directions from the bishops (e.g. an expectation of the greetings and prayers to be sung by the priest), boldy attempts to move the worshipping Church to the original objective of the full sung celebration as the norm, casting other forms of mass seen as gradations that cut down on that norm, according to available resources and circumstances. But a culture shift from seeing the said Low Mass as the basic buiding block, with musical settings seen as optional and potentially complicating extras, will take decades of unrelenting determination to succeed. This is why such an initiative as the Vatican II Hymnal is a godsend. As its name implies, it sets our to implement the vision of what many are coming to believe is something approaching the shape and culture intended by the Constitution on the Liturgy. Arguably, we had to go through what we have experience and experimented with over the last five decades, in order to evaluate the true direction of our liturgical tradition for the future as well as for retrieving its past. Arguably, too, we may be too late to recalibrate the momentum of the vernacular tradition as it is now, upon the trajectory of the larger tradition out of which it is supposed to have arisen. There are those, too, who will say that the genie is out of the bottle, and that too much change and innovation has become so ingrained and accepted by the faithful as the authentic liturgical language of the Anglophone cultural continuum, that it cannot be undone with more alienating rupture. But at least the Vatican II Hymnal has arrived and can influence for good what lies ahead in the organic redevelopment of our tradition.


Clearly, the Hymnal resonates within a North American culture, at a time when there is fresh heart among a new generation of musicians who have realised that "modern" can soon become dated, and that in the Church's long tradition there are many compositions that were once modern, that stood the test of time, or were later revived when their moment came again, and that this should never have been something we swept away, but built upon. The present writer, a Catholic priest, came from an Anglican musical background, where a mature musical and choral culture was able to take reforms to liturgical texts and formats in its stride because, far from dispensing with the treasury of the past, there was an assumption that it was still available to be pressed into service, and even added to. (Incidentally, this difference in culture is one reason why some Anglicans, convinced of the truth of the Catholic faith, have nevertheless found it difficult at points to make a transition to the Catholic Church's liturgical life in Britain. This is nothing to do with fondness for elaboration in ceremony, or the complexity of music with choirs and organs, but the rupture in the mediation of a culture of sacred poetic and musical art and its sacral performance. A good pastoral and evangelistic point is that music - through involvement in choirs and organ-playing, as well as other kinds of instrumental ministry - strongly embeds its performers in the life, rhythms and custom of Christian belief and worship. As many vocations to the priesthood and religious life came from singing and accompanying at Church services regularly for years on end, as from serving at the altar. Sadly, there are fewer routes for this spiritual deepening nowadays as once there were. In my view, it is an urgent work, for the renewal and building of the Body of Christ, to have choirs and music-making for children and young people that can inspire and stretch their love of worship and, in turn, of God himself. I know from experience that, while it takes hard and long term work, it is not difficult. But the opportunities are now rare. An English vision like that of Watershed in Corpus Christi, Texas, building on, retrieving, newly creating, and developing a deep and continuous liturgical music tradition, is needed sorely. The Music Makers, led by the excellent Jeremy de Satge in Balham, London, are perhaps the standard bearers for a better approach in England and they deserve keen support.

But the Vatican II Hymnal, having been devised with North American customs and familiar pieces in mind, even with so much good new writing, cannot be transferred as it stands to England. That said, whole portions of it - the settings of the Ordinary of the Mass, the excellently conceived psalm response in Gregorian and modern styles, the Alleluia chants - are a model of what a hymnal resource should be. In conception, it reminds me of the Hymnal Companion to the Book of Prayer and the English Hymnal Service Book from the Anglican tradition. In other words, it is not a supplement of hymns, but a handmaid to the liturgy, with the chants that the liturgy requires and the arrangement of hymns to suit the needs of the rite and its seasons. I would take issue with the adaptation of some of the Gregorian chants to English texts, as more than occasionally the relationship between melody, stress and quantity have escaped the editors. But the efforts are nonetheless very singable and serviceable; and they amply demonstrate that it is not only possible to sing the liturgical texts without having to locate or compose a modern substitute, but that the tradition we ought to be more conscious of having received and standing in can adapt, grow and be no less native in English than it is in Latin.

What impresses me most about the Hymnal is its treatment of the hymns as theological and liturgical texts, not as stand along pieces that can be inserted. First, however, I will say something adverse. The selection suffers from being a gathering of texts that are mostly out of copyright. This means that a huge number are at least over fifty years old. The many classic texts have not always been selected with proper heed to the sources. So, accretions and lesser editorially adapted versions have crept in because of common usage, in preference to retrieving, for the formation of the future tradition according to the principles of establishing a classic Catholic liturgy in the vernacular, the authentic texts or their best developments. It also means (and I recognise that there are copyright and royalty implcations that may have made it prohibitive) that the best of the so-called "hymn explosion" in the last half century, has been missed (in England one immediately thinks of the work of the Anglicans Christopher Idle and Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith, and there are many more Catholics and Reformed/Methodist writers who justly stand in the classic hymn tradition).

As it is, given the texts of the missal, lectionary and propers, the hymns in the Vatican II Hymnal occupy perhaps just a fifth of the book. But the positive thing to say is that these have been set out with regard not just to the seasons, but also to the place they could occupy - and the purpose they could serve - in the liturgical celebration. For many years, hymnbooks, and the various guides to liturgy and music for it, have proposed helpful lists of suggested hymns and songs - a tradition begun by the English Hymnal of 1906. But unless I am very much mistaken this is the first time we have had a hymnbook (even with so few hymns - just items 203 to 373) that sets out in order its suggestion of which Christmas or Lent hymn should come at the Entrance, Offertory, or Communion, or after the eucharistic action. 170 hymns is not much to work on for an English hymnodist, but the structure and conception is very helpful. Hymns need not replace or overshadow the Proper of the Mass in the Roman rite. But in a contemporary liturgical setting, where we use the vernacular for the engagement and access of the people of the present age, hymns - another aspect of our deep-rooted religious and doxological tradition alongside the historic riches of our tradition - can supplement and amplify it. For instance, as I wrote in Hymns: the Sound of Communion in 2010, this treasury of our religious, social and musical culture, faithful both to the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church's teaching grounded in them, can provide splendid adornments to the Latin rite liturgy both in English and Latin. For instance, a great hymn in English can precede the Introit and form an act of worship at the conclusion of mass. Certain kinds of English hymn can serve as a Sequence alongside the Gradual and Alleluia (Adeste fideles began in this way, but there are other great hymns that likewise reflect on the scene to be announced in the Gospel). Already, even in some Latin celebrations, an English hymn can stand in for the traditional motet in the place of the Offertory or at Communion. I think particularly of the Solemn Christmas Mass at St George's Cathedral in Southwark, England, where a Latin ordinary of the mass and other chants, has been adorned with the addition of Latin and English hymns for the sake of the people's "active participation", and it works very well. By the same token, there is a wealth of Wesleyan and Anglican hymns that were devised for the celebration of the Eucharist, and not for eucharistic adoration at Benediction, which lend themselves to the rite of Communion in a way in which some English Catholic hymnody does not. All this is pointed to in the Vatican II Hymnal. What is needed in an English milieu, however, is a much more ample treatment of the classic English hymn tradition, along with its development in the last half century and more. This would call for a collection of nearer three hundred strophic, metrical hymns (in association with the provision of the other liturgical music setting the Ordinary and the Propers as in the Hymnal, as well as the online resources), but arranged not in reference to themselves as a collection from the great corpus of hymns, but in terms of how, when, where and how, they can serve the celebration of the Mass and the observance of the Catholic liturgical year. This would be a large ambition, exceeding in scope what the editors of the Vatican II Hymnal set themselves, but it would be a remarkable service to the Church in its present situation and to the development and re-enrichment of our tradition in its English vernacular and pastoral appearance.

Fr Mark Woodruff (RC Diocese of Westminster), Priest-Director of the League
Precentor, St Edmundsbury Cathedral, 1989-91, Organist, St George's Anglican Cathedral, Jerusalem, 1982.

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