Hymnal Review, Part Four: The Vatican II Hymnal

Editor’s note: Part One, the author’s introduction to this series of reviews of three hymnals – The Adoremus Hymnal, The Saint Michael Hymnal, and The Vatican II Hymnal – is  here. Part Two, the author’s review of Adoremus Hymnal, is here. Part Three, the author’s review of the Saint Michael Hymnal, is here.

The final hymnal under review in this series is the Vatican II Hymnal (V2H). It is at once the most complete, the most limited, and in some ways the most traditional of all three hymnals. It was published by Corpus Christi Watershed, a non-profit organization dedicated to exploring and embodying the relationship of religion, culture and the arts. Founded in Corpus Christi, Texas, on October 19, 2006, CCWatershed “employs the arts and creative media in the service of theology, the Church and Christian culture for the enrichment and enjoyment of the public.”

The promotional material for V2H states that the book is for Catholics “who can no longer tolerate music written in a secular style, hymns that are not theologically correct, songs that do not belong in church, confusing and expensive missalettes, and hymnals lacking what is required for Mass.” Make no mistake about it!

The editor of the hymnal, Jeffrey Ostrowski, holds the B.M. in music theory from the University of Kansas and has done graduate work in the fields of musicology and education. His scholarship has focused on the historical performance of plainsong and polyphony of the High Renaissance. He was assistant organist at Corpus Christi Cathedral in Texas for four years and was elected president of Corpus Christi Watershed in February 2011.

Corpus Christi Watershed is a very small company. They have no buildings or offices, nor any endowment. The financial crisis had a devastating effect on the company, which has always been dependent upon donations and volunteers. CCWatershed is truly a labor of love.

The hymnal is available in a glossy, unison-only, hard-cover pew edition, but a spiral-bound book containing the organ accompaniments for the Mass settings and the hymns is also available for purchase, or one can download them without charge. Also free for downloading are the SATB scores for the hymns, and the harmonizations for the responsorial psalms, though both of these are available for purchase in book form. Organ scores for the gospel acclamation harmonizations are also available for free downloading. While the free downloading might be an attractive alternative, giving evidence of CCWatershed’s zeal for V2H, it does require some work to assemble the loose leaves needed in a given parish. I have not seen any of these downloadable materials, or their book forms, in preparation for this review.

The book is called the Vatican II Hymnal for one practical reason, according to Mr. Ostrowski: to make it clear that, though it contains a lot of Latin, it is in full accordance with the Second Vatican Council, and that it is intended primarily for the Ordinary Form (even though it also contains the Extraordinary Form). Ostrowski correctly says that upon seeing all the Latin, most people think that V2H is intended for the EF. In my view, however, it is not the Latin that makes the hymnal successful, but rather its generous translation into fine English-texted modal chant, such as for the responsorial psalms and several of the English ordinaries. I add here that CCWatershed is in the final stages of publishing the St. Edmund Campion Missal and Hymnal for the liturgy of the 1962 missal.

At 750 pages long, V2H’s pew edition contains the complete readings for all Sundays and major feasts, more than a hundred pages of Mass settings, the complete texts in Latin and English for the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Mass, more than a hundred pages of Eucharistic hymns, the so-called Chabanel Responsorial Psalms, the Garnier Alleluias, and the texts of some motets. It claims to be the first hymnal ever printed to contain the complete texts for the sung propers. CCWatershed currently makes available more than 6,000 free PDF scores, 1,000 free MP3s, and over 800 videos. Rarely has a publisher done so much to promote the sale and dissemination of a hymnal.

The contents of the book follow this order: the St. Charles Garnier Gospel Acclamations, the Ordinary Form (English on the left, Latin on the right), the Extraordinary Form (Latin on the left, English on the right), motet translations, the “ad libitum” responsorial refrains in honor of St. Noël Chabanel, options for the sprinkling rite, the Mass setting by ICEL, (eleven) Mass settings in English, (eight) Gregorian chant settings in Latin, the seasonal hymns, communion hymns (general), communion hymns (seasonal), propers for Sundays and major feasts, and the indices. Before the indices there is a brief order for Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament that contains two hymns: O Salutaris Hostia and Tantum ergo. It is to the credit of Mr. Ostrowski that the communion hymns were kept quite distinct from those for Benediction.

The Latin ordinaries include Lux et origo, de Angelis, Cum jubilo, Alme Pater, Orbis factor, Pater cuncta, Stellifer Conditor orbis, and Mass XVII (for Advent and Lent). Seven of the ten English ordinaries are in unmetered chant forms, with the three others metered. The English settings were written by Fr. Samuel F. Weber, OSB, Richard Rice, L. Columbkille Simms, and Ostrowski himself. But would any congregation really need twenty settings of the ordinary?

The typography of V2H lacks the elegance of SMH. There is no need to underline headings that are in all caps. The fonts in the OF and EF are larger than they need to be, taking up more space than necessary, while the fonts for the lectionary readings, by contrast, should be a little larger. The page numbers in the hymnody are excessively large, much more so than the page numbers elsewhere in the book. The music is nicely engraved. There is no variation from black ink. But the most commendable feature of the design of the hymnal is its beautiful collection of line-art graphics, of the sort that were so common in liturgical publications in the 40s and 50s. When he was a student at the University of Kansas, Ostrowski collected about 30,000 pages of rare chant books, many of them published by Pustet, Solesmes and Mechlin, some of whose line-art appears in V2H. They had to be digitized for use in the hymnal.

It is very strange that the first section of V2H, after the Foreword and the Editor’s Preface, is the musical settings of the gospel acclamations, which would have been better placed following the antiphons for the responsorial psalms. The acclamations are named in honor of St. Charles Garnier, one of the Jesuit martyrs of North America. Each of the acclamations is named for a particular saint, many of them seventeenth-century French Jesuit priests.

The so-called “ad libitum” antiphons for the English psalter, newly composed settings in square notation on four-line staves, were written by Aristotle A. Esguerra, making a masterful set for the three-year cycle. It is refreshing to see such elegant simplicity in English without a tyrannical beat, without the repetition of texts and without any hype. These settings are gems. They are identified on the cover of the hymnal as the St. Noël Chabanel Responsorial Psalms, but they are not included in the Table of Contents, nor are they so identified on the first page of the antiphons. St. Noël Chabanel was another of the Jesuit martyrs of North America.

A peculiar feature of V2H is the Motet Translations, which contain the Latin texts and English translations of Kevin Allen’s excellent Renaissance-inspired Motecta Trium Vocum (twelve motets for three equal voices) and his Cantiones Sacrae Simplices (twelve motets for SATB). This is obviously an effort to sell Mr. Allen’s compositions, available from CCWatershed, which are presented in compliance with the “long-standing Catholic tradition” of singing a motet in honor of our Lord or the Blessed Virgin after the propers have been sung at the offertory or communion. While it’s a genuine gesture to include these texts, I would hope that the typical choir of a V2H congregation would also look to the vast treasure of excellent SATB motets and anthems, from the sixteenth to the twenty-first centuries, for the pieces that they sing during the liturgy.

It will probably surprise most readers of Pray Tell that all of the hymnody—about 160 hymns in all—is in English, with perhaps five exceptions. There is some duplication of tunes, and a few appear three times, but none more than three. Some of the hymns are in chant form, but most are standard strophic hymnody from the British and German traditions, both Protestant and Catholic. The vast majority of the hymn texts and tunes were taken from 250 Hymns in the Public Domain (ICEL, 1981). Others were taken from The Hymns of the Breviary and Missal by Fr. Matthew Britt, OSB (Benziger Brothers, 1922). We do not see here the historic Te Deum or Christus vincit, nor any of the little known Latin chants that we saw in SMH. Nor, however, has there been any effort to accommodate Hispanics that might appreciate the ethos of this volume. There are no hymns of the day, nor any attempt at inclusive language.

The hymns are organized according to their optimum place in the liturgy, for use at any of these three locations: the entrance, the recessional [sic] or communion. They are printed in this order: Entrance in Ordinary Time, Recessional in Ordinary Time; Entrance in Advent, Recessional in Advent; Entrance in Christmastide, Recessional in Christmastide, and so forth. The remainder of the hymnody constitutes a large section of hymns for Holy Communion (53 choices for general use and another 43 for communion during particular seasons and occasions). This is a novel way to organize the hymnody, and it is not without merit, if it is a tad restricting.

There are no hymns from modern authors or composers, saving considerable expense at the unfortunate expense of denying the validity of modern texts and tunes. Mr. Ostrowski says he does not care when a composer lived; all he cares about is musical excellence. But has nothing of excellence been composed since the Council? Everything is in English or Latin (no Spanish or any other language). As a matter of fact, the hymnal contains many fine acclamations, antiphons and ordinaries by the young composers Kevin Allen and Aristotle A. Esguerra, both of whom declined to comment for this review. But there are no hymns from these men.

The English translation of the EF is flawed by poor and inconsistent word choice, awkward sentence structures, and by a slavish adherence to the Latin; in many instances it is bulky or clipped, compromising a graceful, idiomatic flow of the language.

I said above that V2H is at once the most complete and the most limited of the three hymnals here under review. It is complete inasmuch as it contains virtually everything needed by an OF congregation wanting to sing the ordinary in Latin or English, including the psalms and gospel acclamations in English, with a good sampling of traditional hymns in English, along with all the readings. It is limited by the relatively small number of hymns, robbed of the space given over to the readings.

James Frazier is organist and choir master at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in St. Paul. He was formerly music director in the office of worship of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis.

The author’s brief conclusion to this series of reviews will appear tomorrow.


  1. Dear James,

    Thank you very much for this thoughtful review. I hope folks will explore the free resources you kindly mentioned at the Hymnal Website:

    By the way, we placed the ALLELUIA melodies at the very beginning of the book in an attempt to make them easy to locate. We felt that (perhaps) people would be singing these melodies at daily Masses.

    Finally, here is a comparison chart that was recently sent to us. I have permission to share it with others, who may find it useful:

  2. Congratulations, JMO.
    For the larger part, I found Dr. Frazier’s review quite reasonable with a few notable exceptions. For example, his observation that one hymntune only services no more than three texts I thought to be complimentary to your discretion. On the other hand, the raising of an issue that is in no way germane to the review, the absence of Spanish language hymns especially as couched as an “accomodation,” is simply gratuitous and unnecessary. To mention an “omission” that a reviewer determines as significant (though content rationale is clearly stated in introductions) changes the role of the critique into an editorial.
    It is absolutely reasonable to question the need for twenty settings of the ordinary as well, if one is looking only from the perspective of one parish at a time. Conversely one could quite successfully argue that 20 settings provide a wonderful panopoly of options that are NOT to be found in the market-driven and researched choices of OCP, GIA, WLP, St.John’s Collegeville, etc., and which were even more acutely scrutinized via MR3 by everyone, including here by Michael Silhavey, and many chosen settings have been found quite wanting. In addition, the number of settings is, in its way, complimentary to the ethos Jeff O maintains, that of honoring the role of the congregation’s right of access to singing the ordinaries as S. Pius X envisioned.
    I’m not sure I would also have, speaking of sacrificing space (hymns for readings) felt it necessary to, on one hand, compliment the inclusion of translations of the Allen motets, and then assume that choirs using the V2 would not avail themselves of the vast array of polyphony in the CPDL and Creative Commons. Choristers, Directors and Organists have a much broader view than just the publications of any given publisher. Gary Penkala’s CanticaNova serves as much as a clearing house for that information as a publisher itself. So, nothing wrong with a little self-promotion, I’d offer.
    But, all in all, a fair hearing.

  3. I’ll repeat my criticism of W4, that perhaps this is a poor time to be including Mass ordinaries in hymnals at all, at least until the dust settles and better settings come more to the fore.

    I haven’t seen the hymnal, but I would wonder about the inclusion of alleluia melodies for the people, too. It’s not an ordinary time for people to be picking up a book and paging to something they might just as well repeat from a cantor’s intonation.

    Spanish is an interesting issue. I don’t know that Anglo communities do more than scratch the surface on Spanish language repertoire in their hymnals. V2H strikes me as a white, Anglo effort. You have to pick a market and zero in on the people you think you can reach.

    The organization of hymnody sounds interesting and unique. More interesting is the lack of a contemporary repertoire of songs and hymns. Maybe Kevin Allen and Aristotle Esguerra and others just aren’t writing them.

  4. I suppose no ‘review’ will ever be perfect, but I hope some suggestions are welcomed. I would disagree with the notion that not many modern composers are included, because Simms, Allen, Esguerra, Ostrowski, Ford, Weber, and others I noticed are all living composers. My personal assumption (guess?) about the choice of hymns is that they tried to find hymns generally well-known by Catholic congregations. The Gustav Holst melody THAXED included in the Vatican II Hymnal is an example of a tune that still sounds ‘fresh’ to my ears, in spite of the fact that Holst is no longer living. I also appreciate that all the psalm verses are written out for each verse, as I am not aware of any other editions that do this. The Owen Alstatt version I have crams all the verses together.

    Incidentally, I myself have reviewed several of the ‘traditional’ Catholic hymnals for the Musica Sacra Forum. A somewhat updated version of my initial review has also been posted here:

  5. This hymnal’s strength seems to be that it presents a particular “vision” for how Mass should be celebrated and follows up with it by providing a complete package. It seems to me a parish wanting to go in a more traditional direction liturgically could buy this hymnal and need little else.

    I like how the ordinary for the EF was included. Most EF Masses occur in parishes that primarily celebate the OF – a reality more hymnal publishers should embrace.

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