Today it is hard to find good Catholic music at mass. Many parishes have few, if any, well-qualified and committed musicians. The musicians they do have are often over-worked and underpaid (with 3 or 4 weekend masses, plus weddings and funerals). And then the musical selections they have to work with, well, lack quality, diversity and compositional excellence. Most Catholic parishes use hymnals published by GIA (Gregorian Institute of America) or OCP (Oregon Catholic Press). While detailed critique of these hymnals is not something I’ll indulge in right now, suffice it to say that the selections available in these hymnals are very limited: Traditional hymns are left out or their words are altered or neutered. Contemporary hymns are plentiful, but usually by only a few composers who are not necessarily world-renown apart from the GIA and OCP publications. Some of the hymns have theological/doctrinal problems. Some are just vapid.
The limitations of these hymnals do two main things: 1.) They discourage musicians who love great music from participating in parish music groups. They don’t want to be forced to perform sub-par music. This lack of musicians is frustrating for parishoners who then complain about the quality of the parish music group. 2.) They discourage parishoners from singing (many of the contemporary hymns are not well composed for congregational singing).
Ok, so in response to all of this (and maybe I will discuss some of the problems in detail at a later date), a few good-hearted souls have decided to try to help us all out by publishing new hymnals not within the GIA/OCP monopoly and by performing alternate music that, shall we say, is a little more impressive. I have already mentioned one initiative (The St. Augustine Hymnal), but I’ll introduce you to a few more. I’m sure there are more efforts out there to produce good Catholic music, so if you know of any besides what I mention here, please comment below.
1. Adoremus Hymnal
The Adoremus Hymnal is a 14-year-old effort by Ignatius Press, which is not a music publisher, to provide a simple, traditional hymnal for Catholic parishes. It has the Gregorian Mass VIII and a decent selection of older hymns. It is limited by the fact that it does not include the Sunday readings cycle (which many parishes like) and it does not have a plentiful selection. That is, it’s a rather thin hymnal and many parishes would like a thick one. They are publishing a new edition for the new mass translation.
2. St. Augustine Hymnal
The St. Augustine Hymnal, which I have seen in one edition, is a new attempt. It comes in several editions and boasts a broader selection of music, some from the GIA/OCP monopoly. But it is published by its own outfit, the International Liturgy Publications (ILP). I leafed through it and I like it. It has both traditional and contemporary music–a good mix. The only trouble I see is that there are way too many compositions by one guy, Vince Ambrosetti, the founder of ILP. But you’ll find a broader range of hymns and fewer hymns with doctrinal or theological problems in the St. Augustine Hymnal. It is a great first step in the right direction.
3. Corpus Christi Watershed and the Vatican II Hymnal
I just learned about Corpus Christi Watershed. They are a singing group out of Corpus Christi, TX and they have a fantastic sound. I highly recommend checking out some of their videos on their Vimeo page. They have published a new hymnal called the Vatican II Hymnal. I have not held it in my hands yet, but it looks like it has quite a few mass settings and lots of traditional hymns. Some of the mass settings are by Kevin Allen, the leader of Corpus Christi Watershed. They have done a lot of work to include traditional Gregorian chant and Gregorian-style forms. It seems like a great effort and I think I’ll be purchasing a copy to look through the details. The only limitation I see is that the hymnal does not contain any contemporary-style hymns or songs, which many parished would probably like.
4. Songs in His Presence
Songs in His Presence is an effort associated with ILP. They have published a few CD’s and song books, especially Psalms settings called “Psalms in His Presence.” Using the praise and worship style, their goal is to put forth music that is singable, contemporary, doctrinally correct and easy to use in a parish. I must say I’m biased since I know a lot of the people involved. The main limitation with this group is that they have not published a full hymnal. The most readily useful stuff for a parish would be their psalms settings since the congregation won’t need song books.
I think there are probably more efforts out there at producing good Catholic music. These are the ones I have discovered. I just hope that pastors, bishops and parish music directors will begin finding and using some of this music. I think new efforts in this direction will go a long way to renewing music in the Catholic parish, shaking off the GIA/OCP duopoly, getting more qualified musicans involved and encouraging parishoners to open their mouths and sing!