Hymnal review: The Saint Augustine Hymnal

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.”

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7 comments

  1. I have not seen the hymnal, but I have met Mr. Ambrosetti on two ccasions and both featured his original music. Th music was new, but very easy to pick up, and everyone in the congregation that wanted to sing was able to do so by the second verse. If he has chosen other authors that have similar writing styles, I think it will be fine.

  2. Can anyone comment on the theology of the hymn texts? I casually reviewed some of this material a few years ago, and I seem to remember a number of problematic passages. I don’t have a copy of this hymnal at hand right now to check.

  3. Each of the nine indexes which Chris references presents the entire database of the hymnal. There are nine fields for the data. Each index presents the data sorted alphabetically or numerically according to one of those fields. The “Index by Copyright Holder of Music,” found at:

    http://www.ilpmusic.org/SAHIndexbyCopyrightHolderofMusic.pdf

    made it easy to check out Chris’ statement about the absence of GIA-copyrighted music. In fact, it shows that the Saint Augustine Hymnal includes 40 items from GIA, more than half of them being the most popular settings of Marty Haugen and David Haas. And, yes, “Shepherd Me, O God” and Sr. Suzanne Toolan’s “I Am the Bread of Life” are included. “Eat This Bread” was the only piece from the Taizé community I saw in this index.

    Interestingly (?), 84 items have the same tune name: ORA CANTA.

  4. There are two versions of the SAH: a hardbound version without GIA material, and a softcover with. GIA only “lends” out its music to softcover competitors, not other Catholic hymnals.

    I met Mr Ambrosetti at a reading session he offered several months ago. He is more choosy about theological texts than other publishers; he’s asked to make careful edits in some published material. The introduction to the SAH sums up his manifesto pretty well. He steers a middle course between modern considerations and traditional Catholic language.

    The music presented was very much in a modern ensemble style, mostly piano-driven, and quite singable. If a parish was already using OCP or GIA resources, their hardcover hymnal would present a challenge. Less so for OCP, which does share its music to other published hardcover formats.

    As I perused some ILP music, I thought piano and choral arrangements were something of a weakness. Some were good, but others not as carefully crafted as they could be. ILP seems to have good tunesmiths, but their in-house arranging skills don’t match the fairly high bar set by GIA.

    If GIA had not snapped up its big chunk of the contemporary music market in the 80’s, I think ILP would be a substantial American alternative to the somewhat multi-national OCP offerings. Mr Ambrosetti was one of the folks involved with Cooperative Ministries, which published early material from Joncas and Haas, among others.

    As it is, the SAH has an uphill climb to find a market niche. But maybe MR3 presents something of an opportunity. If I were hired by a parish already using it, I wouldn’t feel hampered by the material. But as a hardcover hymnal user, I really don’t think I could avoid a lynch mob if I opted for the SAH hardcover and lose so much GIA material.

    One last observation: GIA pushes parishes into the Liturgy of the Hours and more mature liturgical considerations, and is probably a good bit ahead of the average parish. Not so much ILP. You can find songs and psalm settings appropriate for the Hours and the rites in the SAH, but not so much ritual music. Perhaps that suits the average parish as well or better, and gives more page space to songs and hymns.

    1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #4:

      Todd, thank you for the further clarification about the inclusion or exclusion of GIA-copyrighted materials in the softcover and hardcover editions.

      I am not familiar with ILP-copyrighted music except for “Gift of Finest Wheat.” My understanding is that the original copyright owner, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, never paid a cent of royalties to Omer Westendorf, Robert Kreutz, or their estates for this 20th-century gem. I hope that ILP will rectify this injustice to standard industry practice.

  5. Someone asked me yesterday: “Does the Saint Augustine Hymnal have the imprimatur of the Bishop of Nashville?”

  6. Unhappy with hymnal & accompany material. Too many mistakes in Resp. psalms. Acc. & hymnal have different melody’s in a few. Many hymns have no accompany music. I feel we were ripped off. I’m located at St. Anne’s parish in Lancaster PA. please respond..

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