IAH – European hymnody conference

The Internationale Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Hymnologie (International Fellowship for Research in Hymnology) is meeting this week in Timişoara, Romania. I’m here as translator between the two working languages of the society, German and English. This year’s theme is “The Future of the Hymnbook.”

The IAH has been meeting since 1965, and it is an ecumenical group. At every conference there is a Protestant Eucharist and a Catholic Eucharist. Everyone is invited to receive Communion at both liturgies – although this year the Catholic invitation was not public and explicit because the priest who has always made the invitation was not present. Almost all the Catholics this year received at the liturgy celebrated by a Danish Lutheran minister (“priest,” as they say in Danish). Whenever the Catholics sing a Marian hymn at a workshop or liturgy, everyone joins in without hesitation. Each day begins with ecumenical morning prayer. (BTW, I note with interest that when a Protestant minister prays a collect, he or she inevitably turns around in the center aisle to face the front.) Since I travel with a Latin breviary but no Bible, I had to read the morning Scripture on Tuesday from the screen of a laptop.

Hymn singing is a long tradition common to Catholics and Protestants in IAH who come mostly from north, north central, and eastern Europe. Interest among these Catholics in Mass propers, for example writing new antiphons in vernacular? Zilch, near as I can tell. If you were to tell any of these Catholics that hymns don’t belong at Mass, they aren’t liturgical, they aren’t Catholic, I expect they would look at you as if you had two heads.

* * * * *

What do they talk about at an IAH conference? Monday began with Dr. Erich Renhart of Graz, Austria, asking whether the next hymnals will be e-books. An e-book would be more flexible, make it possible to draw on unlimited resources, and each user could magnify the page size as desired. But it would be expensive, works only when there is electricity and the technology is functioning, and no longer delimits a stable content which reflects and passes on a tradition and identity. Renhart concluded that there are many situations and contexts in the Church’s life when e-books and projector screens might be appropriate. But the printed book should remain the medium for use in worship. He ended with a plea for beauty and quality in the workmanship of printing books. In the discussion, Alan Luff pointed at the already in the 18th century, hymn texts were displayed on large banners in Westminster Abbey to enable the people to join in.

* * * * *

Dr. Felician Roşca spoke on Romanian Protestant hymn traditions. Germans have been in Romania since the Middle Ages, and Lutheranism arrived already in the 16th century. The Calvinist reformed tradition has also been present in Romania since the 16th century, primarily among Hungarian speakers. In both cases, hymns and psalms from the homeland of the reformers were brought to Romania. More recently, Protestant free church Christianity has come from the U.S. The author told of an evangelical Protestant being permitted to travel to Vienna during the Communist years and finding a hymnal of contemporary songs he wanted to bring back to Romania. If a Christian book were found in his luggage, he would face imprisonment. He hid the hymnal in the garbage on the train as the guards searched him. He then rescued the hymnal and smuggled it in.

* * * * *

The group attended Vespers, sung in Romanian in the beautiful Romanian Orthodox cathedral late on Monday afternoon. Attendance at the Orthodox liturgy remained high throughout the Communist years, and today about 87% of the country is baptized Orthodox. Many local people came and went during the liturgy, for the most part not staying for long. Young and old, male and female, they came in great numbers to kiss the icons, cross themselves repeatedly, and pray.

The Communists outlawed the Greek Catholic church and gave what they didn’t confiscate to the Romanian Orthodox Church. After 1989, the Orthodox patriarch has worked mightily to return the churches to the Greek Catholics.

* * * * *

Mass Monday night in the Roman Catholic Cathedral had Mozart’s Coronation Mass and “Ave Verum” by the Timisoara philharmonic and the music department of the University of Timişoara. Following the practice common for several centuries in these parts, the propers were replaced by the set of strophic German hymns from Schubert’s “Deutsche Messe.” The choir sang in parts, the congregation joined in.

* * * * *

There is much debate about standardizing hymn tunes so that all the Christians within a denomination, or Catholics and Protestants within a region, know the same versions of hymns. If a tune is to be standardized, is the earliest version of a hymn tune always the best version? On Tuesday David Hamnes spoke on unified hymnody in Scandinavia. The official Catholic and Lutheran hymnals in Sweden share much common material as a result of collaboration in planning. The same is true of the Australian Hymn Book (With One Voice) of 1979, and its successor Together in Song of 1999, with hymns for Anglicans, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, and a further edition with Catholic supplement for use in Catholic worship. There have been efforts in the course of the 20th century to create common versions of hymns throughout Norway, and also throughout Sweden, to eliminate local customs and agree on a common version for Lutherans. Hamnes argued against such standardization. Music is what is actually sung, not what it on the page, and where traditions of folk singing are strong, there are always local alterations and embellishments and evolutions. Hymnal editors imposing standardization, as good musicologists, have overvalued the printed page. The 16-member churches of the Christian Council of Norway have considered developing a canon of hymns in common with standardized versions, but pulled back from the goal. Such a canon is best achieved when several denominations are working on hymnal revisions at the same time, which is not the case in Norway. The council settled for documenting all the hymns already in common use but not attempting to reduce them to standardized versions.

* * * * *

From my friendship with a fellow student in Graz in the 1990s, a Romanian Orthodox priest, I knew that the Romanian Orthodox Church has been working in recent decades for more frequent reception of Communion by the faithful and the reintroduction of congregational singing. (The people did not sing at Vespers; the singing was done partly by clergy and mostly by three cantors, two in black robes and one in street clothes, singing into microphone.) My impression then of an ecumenical attitude and openness to western ideals of liturgical reform was confirmed in my visit with Orthodox priest Fr. Vasile Grâjdian, who spoke to the IAH on Romanian Orthodox Chant Books and Song Books. Fr. Grâjdian said the Orthodox have no grounds for throwing stones at Roman Catholics, for their liturgy remained in Old Church Slavonic for many centuries before being translated into the vernacular, Romanian, in the 18th century. Clerical domination and loss of sense of community hurt both traditions equally. (I think he’s being generous to Catholics on this point.) The priest should be, he emphasized, the community’s “presider” (his term – we were speaking German and he said “Vorsteher”). The priest is one from among the people them who leads them in the liturgy which is their work.

* * * * *

The Lutheran Eucharist Tuesday night followed the Danish church order, celebrated mostly in English but with much in Danish. The hymns were taken from Colours of Grace, the European Protestant multilingual hymnal, allowing all to sing simultaneously in many European languages. This isn’t typical of IAH, but we sang all traditional Lutheran chorales at this service – Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist; Allein Gott in der höh; Liebster Jesu wir sind hier; Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan; Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort, and Lobe den Herren.

“The Lord be with you. And with your spirit,” we began. Pray Tell readers might find of interest the order of the service:

* Organ prelude, Introductory greeting

* Old Testament reading, strophic Gloria, Gospel reading, Apostles’ Creed, hymn, sermon, Intercessory prayers, hymn

* Spoken dialog beginning with “Lift up your hearts to the Lord” and including parts of the Sanctus, strophic Agnus Dei paraphrase, beginning of Eucharistic Prayer, Lord’s Prayer, Institution narrative with the words of Jesus, distribution of communion, hymn

* Final prayer and blessing, closing hymn, organ postlude



  1. I suppose if you’d told the great composers like Mozart and Verdi that their Mass compositions would one day not be considered proper for actual worship, they’d shake their heads too.

  2. “In the discussion, Alan Luff pointed at the already in the 18th century, hymn texts were displayed on large banners in Westminster Abbey to enable the people to join in.” Oh really? I would *love* to see a reference for that. If it’s true I’d better rewrite my thesis.

  3. I, too, would like to see a reference for that. The thought of it being true is unsettling. But, we do at times discover that people of the nostalgic past did often display bad taste, nor were as exemplary to us as we might like to believe them to have been. Yet, even were this 18th century banner reference accurate, it would not make it praiseworthy nor an object of emulation by modern methods. Tacky is tacky, regardless of its vintage.

    1. Ben and M. Jackson, I mistakenly typed “18th century,” meant to type “19th,” and have since corrected it.

      1. Thanks – that makes more sense. I wasn’t so much surprised by the method employed to get the text across, which seems at least as appropriate as the then-widespread practice of ‘lining out’ (i.e. singing every line as a call-and-response). I just thought it vanishingly improbable that hymns would have been sung at all at Westminster Abbey as early as the eighteenth century. The standard Anglican view of hymns, prior to about 1830-ish, was that they were not liturgical. It’s not a new debate!

  4. Don’t know nuthin’ ’bout e/cclesiology…..
    or that much more about its history…(despite spending a C-note on AWR’s tome.)

    I, MJO and Mr. Whitworth, do think that Dr. Renhart has a very good bead on the future media of worship aides, tho’ E-book/tablets are a much more comfortable and (erzatz) legitimate alternative to hard copy than is overhead projection, for reasons that should be obvious. We’re already in this debate at our joint.

  5. What I would like for my next laptop/e-book is one that opened to a second screen where the keyboard now is, and which screen could function like a keyboard in touch screen mode.

    However one could also turn the laptop sideways like an open book with two facing pages and which would function and look much like a book, and to be of such a size and weight that one could hold it either in one’s hands or in one’s lap.

    As for choir books, I like choir stalls with a nice place to put my laptop/e-book in front of me if I do not want to hold it.

  6. What I really would like to see in choir stalls is a cup holder for coffee. On a more serious note, could someone please give a liturgical amateur a brief explanation of why hymn-singing doesn’t belong at Mass?

    1. Psalm or canticle verses with an antiphon are appointed for the Introit, the Offertory and the Communion. However since these were not revised much to fit well the three year lectionary, the practice of singing hymns at these times has continued as was often done in pre-Vatican II Low Masses. In my experience parish liturgy committees often pick hymns that fit with the readings and/or liturgical season. Some see the appointed texts as “singing the Mass” while the hymns are “singing at Mass.” Lots of very strong and divergent feelings about this on this and other blogs. Don’t be surprised if there is much disagreement about any simple answer but I decided to give it a try.

      1. Thanks–that makes sense. I don’t see our liturgy committee giving up hymns any time soon, though!

      2. Has there been a study of how closely (or not) the Propers align (thematically or scripturally) to the Lectionary readings?

        (And has there been some sort of analysis to show how the readings are related among themselves, and why they were selected that way? I know the Second Reading is usually hard to fit in with the others…)

  7. Fr Ruff – Thanks for the correction about which century, but: 18th or 19th or any other, no precedent or antiquity for such a tacky and liturgically distracting custom makes it exemplary. (They also white-washed the interior of Notre Dame, Paris, in the 18th century in a mis-guided effort to hide its Gothic ‘barbarity’ and make it more modern. – The poor in taste are never lacking and endlessly industrious in ways to cheapen our culture, and, they will always be with us.)

  8. @ Jeffrey, I am sure there some good commentaries on the lectionary readings that can fill you in on this. During Ordinary Time, the Gospel and Epistle texts are read in their individual sequences, and the Old Testament reading is chosen to fit w/ the Gospel in some way. The readings chosen for the particular liturgical seasons have their own rationale and, often, a long history behind that use, such as the Lenten Gospels used in the Scrutinies.
    Was this what you were asking about?

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