It continues to be a great blessing, as well as a daunting challenge, that the Roman Catholic church in the USA has no single official hymnal – and thus, no official common repertoire. As technology has improved, it has become easier for more companies to produce their own hymnals (and negotiate with dozens of copyright holders, not all of whom have always been willing to grant permission to reprint their music.)

One new entrant to the hymnal market is The Saint Augustine Hymnal, first edition, a product of International Liturgy Publications (ILP) of Nashville, TN, founded in 1977. The company, founded by composer and performer Vince Ambrosetti, represents dozens of artists, composers and authors.  Almost all of the names on their roster are unfamiliar to me.  Some seem to have a connection to charismatic Catholic movements, which have inspired their own repertoire. The best-known song in ILP’s catalog is “Gift of Finest Wheat”; they also handle the rights to Dan Feiten’s “Seed, Scattered and Sown,” and Donald Fishel’s “Alleluia, Alleluia, Give Thanks.” This review considers the hardcover edition of the hymnal; the contents differ between the hardcover and softcover versions of this hymnal.  (The latter is more of a missalette, usable for three years.)

The hymnal is an attractive volume, with a black cover and silver embossed letters, and nicely typeset with a wide, readable font. The lyrics are spaced with gaps between each group of three stanzas, which adds to readability. The hymnal includes over one thousand musical items. These include the Mass of Renewal, which won the NPM New Mass Setting competition in 2011, and is interlined with the Mass texts here. Five other mass ordinaries are included, along with 150 settings of psalm and canticle antiphons. The only ritual texts besides Mass are those for Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction. To my disappointment, there is only one index in the published hymnal, though many more are available online.

The preface explains the desire of the publishers to offer music from a wide variety of eras, and “the fullest possible representation of all Catholic publishers.”  They have largely succeeded on both counts. There are dozens of items from OCP Publications and World Library Publications, both “classics” from NALR and Lucien Deiss, as well as more recent compositions. As with many other hardbound hymnals, they are handicapped by not being able to include works from GIA Publications.  Many well-known hymns are included; you will find “Lift High the Cross,” “Amazing Grace,” “O God, Beyond All Praising,” and many more.  As always, there are a few idiosyncratic choices. Seeing “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” with a newly-composed tune feels like a disservice to the many who would know it with ST. DENIO. It also seems odd to see a reasonably faithful version of “Faith of Our Fathers,” but a rewritten version of “We Gather Together.”

There are a number of common chants (in modern stemmed notation), often in both Latin and English.  There is also a strong representation of the praise and worship genre (including, for instance, “Refiner’s Fire,” “Shout to the Lord,” and “In the Secret.”)  The inclusion of these songs is another sign of the maturity of the genre. A number of items seemed especially appropriate for children’s liturgies; I recognized some popular works by Jack Miffleton and Christopher Walker. However, I was disappointed at the lack of music in other languages in this book; besides a handful of bilingual (English-Spanish) songs, all the music is in English or Latin.

The preface explains the editors’ desire for singable keys. Much of the music here is displayed one to three half-steps lower than in many other hymnals. For instance, one finds WINCHESTER NEW in A-flat, “How Great Thou Art” in A-flat, and NETTLETON in C. These keys would make SATB singing more difficult, but many Catholic congregations sing only in unison. One could certainly argue that this range best suits the vocal abilities of the average congregation now. Presenting the hymns in these lower keys in the hymnal is largely cosmetic – competent musicians are free now to play hymns in whatever key they wish – but it could encourage more accompanists to play them in these lower keys.

I appreciated that the hymnal is especially scrupulous in listing the inspirations and sources for their texts. A large number of the selections new to me are drawn from scripture, writings of saints, and writings of the church fathers. However, there are many cases where different composers were inspired by the same texts, which makes titles quite confusing. For instance, there are four “Be With Me, Lord”s, three “Come, Holy Spirit, Come”s, and three “I am the Way”s. There are three musical settings of the Prayer of St. Francis with virtually the same text, which seems excessive. I suspect many Roman Catholics will be surprised to not find Marty Haugen’s piece at “Shepherd Me, O God,” or Suzanne Toolan’s piece at “I am the Bread of Life,” or the Taizé piece at “Jesus, Remember Me.”  It feels a little misleading, almost a bait and switch, to find these new pieces there; it’s also unfair to these new pieces to have to be compared to a more famous piece with the same name.

What is really striking about this hymnal is how much of it is comprised of ILP’s own authors. This is, of course, standard practice for virtually every hymnal. But the index by copyright online suggests that this book is over 50% ILP copyrights, and I suspect this is repertoire that many Roman Catholics do not know.  ILP has a daunting challenge in that they are not one of the better-known Catholic publishers.  Their Web site shows that its contributors are working pastoral musicians in parishes across the country, so I’m confident that these new pieces have been field-tested with congregations and worked well. I have no doubt that there are a good number of quality pieces in this hymnal. But it feels like ILP is providing hundreds of new songs that most congregations won’t have time to learn.

A few authors and composers are so dominant as to be overwhelming. A quick count shows that there are over 125 hymns and songs in this book where Vince Ambrosetti, listed as the publisher, claims a significant textwriting or composing credit; Jim Cowan, over 60. Given the diversity of Roman Catholic liturgical music – and the diversity that this hymnal represents – I would question whether any one person should be so heavily represented. It’s especially striking in certain thematic areas of the hymnal; Mr. Ambrosetti is responsible for virtually all the “Ordination and Profession” hymns; Mr. Cowan, a heavy majority of the “Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction” section.  Having one composer responsible for most of the music in a specific area seems myopic, both musically and theologically.

Samples of some ILP songs from the hymnal are available on their Web site. I think these samples do the hymnal a disservice, as they are largely soloistic renderings of pieces new to me that make me wonder if they’re meant to be congregational. They suggest to me that ILP focuses on praise and worship music, and I’m not sure if such is the case.

By releasing this hymnal and stressing their own music so heavily, ILP believes that they have a contribution to make to the scene of contemporary Catholic liturgical music.  I wonder how this hymnal will age – which hymns and songs from this book will people still be singing in fifteen or twenty years? This hymnal would work well for a parish with a strong praise and worship music ministry, with few non-English speakers, which wants to make the Mass of Renewal a keystone of their ritual music. For other parishes, this book may be a useful resource, but it falls short of the editors’ noble goal of being a “universal experience of the musical liturgy.”