The new Liber Hymnarius from Solesmes: A critical review

by Franz Karl Praßl

Liber Hymnarius cum Invitatoriis et aliquibus Responsoriis. Editio emendata et aucta. (Antiphonale Romanum secundum Liturgiam Horarum Ordinemque Cantus Officii Dispositum a Solesmensibus Monachis praeparatum. Tomus Alter). Solesmes 2019.

Thirty six years after the first appearance of the Liber Hymnarius in 1983[1], a necessary reprint (what number are we up to?) of this book occurred in 2019. This actually would not merit particular mention, except that the far-reaching alterations of this edition are surprising. This is seen already in the expanded title: Editio emendata et aucta – improved and expanded edition.

What it is that is expanded and “improved” can be stated succinctly, and this is even revealed at the homepage of the Solesmes bookstore:

“Cette nouvelle edition du Liber Hymnarius est sans signes rythmiques comme les derniers livres liturgiques parus. Il comporte une nouvelle préface et intègre tous les nouveaux saints canonisés depuis 1983 jusqu’à aujourd’hui.”

That is to say that the book also contains all newly canonized saints from 1983 “up to the present day,” or to be more precise, all those saints which have also been taken into the general Roman calendar. That is not a small number, and as a matter of fact all these celebrations make use of a hymn from the Commons. A comparison of the layout of both tables of contents shows that not one new hymn, nor one new invitatorium, nor one new Responsorium prolixum were taken into the new edition.

The index of celebrations of saints is thus nearly a half page longer, and the Index generalis is also somewhat more detailed. The pagination in the musical section of both editions is identical. The generous spacing of the first edition is reduced to make space for reference to the hymns from the Commons. Sometimes this made it necessary to shift things around a bit in the layout. The memorial of the Most Holy Name of Jesus (1.3) is added, but one finds no hymns given there.

Among the positive aspects of the improvements is surely the correction of mistakes in the index. We find numerous new attributions of authors. The famous pseudonym “Novus” is now disclosed: behind this hides the hymn texts of Anselmo Lentini OSB (1901-1989). He is now expressly named, but one could already glean this from his critical edition of the texts of the postconciliar hymnary.[2] Ad cenam Agni is now attributed to Nicetas of Remesiana, which Lentini also had already given. The hymn Christe redemptor… conserva was identified by Lentini as an unknown author from the 9th century; the first printing of the hymnary named Rabanus Maurus; this new edition gives Helischar. It is now questioned with a “?” whether Custodes hominum really stems from Robert Bellarmine, as Lentini had already done. Iam lucis orto sidere now jumps from the sixth century to the eighth, as was already Lentini’s viewpoint. Hymnological source references are always a delicate matter, and a lot of work stands behind such research. The editors of this hymnary deserve acknowledgment for their efforts at greater accuracy.

But for the uninitiated there are great surprises hidden behind the emendations, i.e. “improvements.” I’m speaking of grave interference with the appearance of the notes: not melodic changes, but change in the indications for performance practice. Connected to this is a new Foreword.

As the listing at the website indicates, all “rhythmic signs” were removed from this edition, which obviously had already happened in the most recently published books. This is of course determinative for the new “operator’s manual.” Behind the minimizing and euphemistic statement that the “rhythmic signs” were removed is concealed the surprising and shocking observation that anything that in any way could recall the interpretation of chant in light of the oldest manuscripts has been obliterated. The insights of the semiological school are thereby removed from this Solesmes publication, and the life work of their own confrere, Fr. Eugène Cardine, is blatantly betrayed.

The “neotypography” (revised notation) of the 1981 Psalterium Monasticum and the 1983 Liber Hymnarius was of course devised in order to make visible in the square-note notation the interpretative indications of the St. Gall neumes. To be sure, there is no return to the typography of 1912. But the lifegiving power of the melodies in their differentiated rhythmic form and theological proclamation has been castrated by the removal of the various types of dots and episemas [translator’s note: some write episemata in English]. An example illustrates this (see below). I will offer no further commentary, for it speaks for itself.

In the Foreword of the 1983 Liber Hymnarius, the “monks of Solesmes” officially committed themselves to semiological interpretation of chant. In the reprint of 2019, this is revised – in a relatively cowardly manner – in that parts of the Foreword (which is by Fr. Cardine) are omitted. These parts spoke of the manner in which differentiated syllable values and note values are graphically printed, what episemas mean in modern print, how neume groupings are to be read, and how one converts all this into sound. Missing are the excerpts on the liquescent, syllable values, syneresis and dieresis [translator’s note: conjoining two syllables for one note and dividing the vowels of a syllable over more than one note respectively], and the explanatory musical example. Concerning repercussion, the statement remains that one should not connect two notes on the same pitch into one sound. But the second half of the sentence on the apostrophes and trigon, in which the word repercutiatur appears, is missing. Crasis [translator’s note: merging of two vowels into one syllable] is still mentioned. The table of neumes with its brief annotations remains. [Translator’s note: English readers might be interested in this translated excerpt of the 1983 Foreword.]

A telltale sign of change in perspective is the title of this section: “de aliquibus regulis in cantu servandis” is changed to “de aliquibus principibus (sic!) musicalibus huius editionis.” Gone is language of song as a word-melody unity on the basis of the text. Now it is a matter of “some musical principles.” Correspondingly, there are no longer “principles [of a text-based interpretation] presented in this Foreword” that arise from perfect agreement of “sacred text with Gregorian melody.” Rather, in 2019 it states that the “liturgical sublimity of Gregorian cantilena” arises from “perfect agreement of the melody with the sacred text.”[3] That is to say: prima la musica, poi la parola (“first music, then text”). What is this, if not the devaluation of all previous values? We are back to “Les plus belles melodies gregoriennes” [Translator’s note: “The most beautiful Gregorian melodies,” the title of a pre-1960 book by Fr. Joesph Gajard].

In accord with all this is a new sentence in the 2019 Foreword that in singing hymns one ideally should scan the meter (short-long)… (excuse me: should respect the integrity of the verse quantity), above all in the sapphic strophes, to which, for the sake of clarity, are added dots for the lengthenings. This is to say that one need not subject oneself to the bother of a hymn interpretation that does justice to the text.

Why, in the description of the modes of the invitatory melodies, the indication is omitted that there is no first or eighth mode in the authentic repertoire, is a mystery to me.

One can only deeply regret what happened with this edition. Distinguished Solesmese chant scholars such as Pothier, Mocquereau, Claire, and Cardine were always at the cutting edge of scholarly advances in questions of restitution and interpretation. Today, regression and retrospective dominate. That pains the heart. One wonders what is behind this and how we could have arrived at this point.

One aspect of form should not be forgotten. At the beginning of the book is reprinted the decree of approbation of the Congregation for Divine Worship for the 1983 Ordo Cantus Officii [translator’s note: the textual directory of chants]. But the corresponding decree for the 2015 Ordo Cantus Officii – which of course should be the basis for all expansion – is missing. How might one interpret this?

There is frequently at the end of a book review a more or less warmhearted recommendation of the book discussed. In this case, for better or worse, I refrain.

Franz Karl Praßl
The author earned his doctorate in theology from the University of Graz and has studied Gregorian chant and church music extensively. He is coeditor of Graduale novum  and teaches Gregorian chant at the University of Music in Graz and at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome.

This review will appear in the next issue of Beiträge zur Gregorianik. Translated by Anthony Ruff, OSB.

[1] Cf. the detailed presentation and translation of the Foreword (by Cardine) together with explanations: Heinrich Rumphorst, “Regeln für die Wiedergabe des Gregorianischen Chorals im Vorwort des Antiphonale Romanum II / Liber Hymnarius” in Beiträge zur Gregorianik 2 (1986) 26-113. [Translator’s note: English-speaking readers are referred to Peter Jeffrey, “The New Chant Books from Solesmes,” Notes Second Series, 47.4 (June, 1991) 1039-1063.]

[2] Anselmo Lentini (ed.), Te decet Hymnus. L’Innario della “Liturgia Horarum.” Vatican Press, 1984.

[3] A bit of Latin tutoring: it cannot be “cum textum sacrum.” Ab, ex, de, cum, sine, pro, prae govern the ablative. So: “cum textu sacro.” In 1983 this was, mutatis mutandis, written correctly. One should note also that in one section title a meaningless word appears: “de aliquibus principibus musicalibus huius editionis” literally means “concerning some musical princes in this edition.” Surely they meant “de aliquibus principiis musicalibus” – “concerning some musical principles in this edition.”


  1. Thank you, Anthony!

    Should footnote 3 not read ‘Ab, ex, de….’ concerning prepositions and the ablative?

    The rhyme the Christian Brothers taught us for remembering the list of prepositions which are followed by the ablative was:

    A, ab, absque, coram, de,
    palam, clam, cum ex or e,
    sine, tenus, pro and prae,
    and unto these if ‘rest at’ be intended,
    let in, sub, subter, super be appended.

  2. Love this — especially footnote 3! Prassl is a great man!

    Another typo, just after the Gregorian example: Liber Hyumnarius

    1. Paul, thanks for the typo alert. Fixed. (I cut and pasted from Prassl’s PDF rather than Word doc and that is the cause.)

    1. I don’t find that document, “Catholic Hymnody at the Service of the Church,” on the USCCB website, not even on the section devoted to the Committee on Doctrine. On the other hand, Bishop Doerfler of Marquette is himself a member of that Committee, so he has good information on what it has issued.

  3. Is there any relationship between the new antiphonales from Praglia and this revision from Solesmes?

    I gave my breviary from Praglia to a good friend for him to review his Italian. I remember it as a lovely production and quite convenient.

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