Online Edition – September 2005
Vol. XI, No. 6
A Choir Director Selects — The Top Ten Catholic Hymns
by Lucy E. Carroll
The question was raised in a recent AB Readers’ Forum (June 2005) what are the “top ten” Catholic hymns?
This is perilous ground. Selections of music for the Sacred Liturgy must be viewed not on popularity but on appropriateness of text, musical style and form, and accessibility to the congregation. And the music for Mass is not exactly the same thing as hymns. (See AB reader picks in box below Ed.)
Actually, the Vatican provided the music for singing the Mass thirty years ago. At the urging of Pope Paul VI, a booklet, known as Jubilate Deo, was published in 1974, with the Mass music that all Catholics everywhere should be able to sing. It is all in Latin, the universal (and official) language of the Church, and all the music is Gregorian Chant.
This repertoire is for the universal Church, that Catholics may have appropriate music common to all languages and ethnicities, for their use in gatherings of the universal and multi-lingual Church.
The booklet is available from GIA Publications (info on GIA web site: http://www.giamusic.com/scstore/P-chantbooks.html) It is also downloadable in several versions (chant or modern notation – see www.ceciliaschola.org).
But how many parishes do any of us know that actually use that booklet? Very few. Alas!
In my “top ten” list for the Church in America apart from the Jubilate Deo I have omitted Christmas carols, Easter songs, and patriotic pieces, and most are in English. I’ve also avoided song-hymns that are more appropriate for devotions or similar events than for singing at Mass.
The selections are Catholic in origin, many translated from original Latin works. All of them are in traditional style. Pope John Paul II reminded us that the closer the music is in style to chant, the more appropriate it is for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. (“100th Anniversary of Pope Saint Pius X’s Launch of the Liturgy Reform Movement”, on the Adoremus web site at www.adoremus.org/1203PiusX.html)
Therefore, all pop-style pieces are automatically eliminated. The hymns on this list have been around a long time, thus proving their value and staying power rather than any reliance on short-lived popular styles. These hymns are suitable for the Holy Sacrifice of Mass, and can take us except Easter and Christmas through the Liturgical year. Some of my personal favorites are not on the list. This is a utilitarian assemblage. Give these to a Catholic congregation, and they will sing out!
#1 God the Father…
“Holy God We Praise Thy Name”
The first purpose of a hymn is to praise God. This hymn is a translation of Te Deum Laudamus, perhaps the most comprehensive and magnificent text of praise ever penned by hymnist. The text is attributed to Saint Nicetas, +415. The music is a traditional German chorale (Grosser Gott, Vienna, 1774) with a sing-able, well-structured melody and standard harmony. Give this to a congregation and prepare to have them shake the walls. But do find all seven verses so the entire Te Deum is represented in verse form.
#2 God the Son…
“To Jesus Christ Our Sovereign King”
Again, this is a general hymn of praise to God, but now in the person of Jesus Christ, our King and Salvation. The text is a translation of the Latin Christus Vincit, Christus Regnat, a chant hymn, adapted by Monsignor Martin Hellreigel.
The melody, the German chorale Ich Glaub an Gott, Mainz, 1870, is in the chorale style, with a repeated refrain. The melody is steady, predictable, and well-structured. This hymn is useful year ‘round for praise, but is especially appropriate for Christ the King, Palm Sunday, even for Easter.
# 3 To God the Holy Spirit…
“Come Holy Ghost”
The third choice rounds out a set of three hymns to the three Persons of the Trinity. This familiar hymn is based on the Veni Creator Spiritus (Rabanus Maurus, 776-856), with music by the Reverend Louis Lambillotte. It has an easy, symmetrical melody in a steady rhythm. It is good for Pentecost, Confirmation, or any time we call on the Holy Spirit.
#4 The Eucharist…
“Soul of My Savior”
This perfect little Communion hymn is an English adaptation of the Latin text Anima Christi, attributed to Pope John XXII (1249-1334). It tells us of the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus in the Eucharist. There are several settings; my preferred one is that by Lorenzo Dobici.
#5 Our Blessed Mother…
“Hail Holy Queen Enthroned Above”
The text is an adaptation of the Salve Regina, probably by Aimor, Bishop of Le Puy, 11th century. This English version in verse is from the Roman Hymnal, New York, 1884. (Hail, holy Queen, enthroned above, O Maria. Hail, mother of mercy and of love). The melody is consistent and symmetrical. If done in a good key, range is not too high for the folks in the pew. (Bb is a nice key). This hymn is good for all Marian feasts, especially the Assumption.
#6 Ad Jesum per Mariam…
“Mary the Dawn”
This is a lovely unison melody hymn, with text and melody by Paul Cross (pen name of Justin Mulcahy, C.F.) The text has beautiful imagery, the tune is very easy to sing; reminiscent of Ambrosian chant. This hymn is good anytime, but especially good for Advent. Each pairing of symbols can furnish much material for meditation: Mary the dawn, Christ the perfect day; Mary the gate, Christ the heav’nly way.
#7 The Passion…
“Stabat Mater Dolorosa” or
“At the Cross, Her Station Keeping”
There are enough verses to this hymn that, if a few are done each week, it can take you through Lent. The verses, by Jacopone da todi (1230-1306) put us at the foot of the Cross with Mary, feeling her anguish as she experiences the Passion and Death of her Son. Powerful text, very good for Lenten meditations. Chant-like melody is very easy to sing, and is from the Mainzlisch Gesängbuch of 1661. Good for Lent, Holy Week, Stations of the Cross. The traditional English adaptation is by Reverend Edward Caswall.
#8 The Passion…
“O Sacred Head Surrounded”
The text began as a Latin hymn attributed to Saint Bernard of Clairveaux. Henry William Baker’s English translation is perhaps the best. (Modern adaptations sterilize the text too much.)
Musically, this is a bit harder for folks, but it is so familiar that most congregations can sing it well if led by a strong organ and choir. This is the harmonization by Johann Sebastian Bach of a melody by Hans Leo Hassler. The harmonization is also a nice challenge for the church choir. This is the one hymn from a Protestant music source on my list, but the text is Catholic in origin, and the music is a treasure.
“Let all mortal flesh keep silence”
The text is ancient: the Cherubic Hymn from the 4th-century Liturgy of Saint James, still extant in Greek and Syriac and Eastern rites. Gerard Moultrie paraphrased the text. The music is a 17th-century French tune. It is modal and chant-like, easy to sing and very spiritual in nature. Good anytime, especially for Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Communion, Christmas, general praise. (Omit verse 4 in Lent because of the alleluias in the refrain.)
And hymn #10?
It is difficult to end this list, because all Catholics should know a good setting of O Salutaris Hostia and Tantum Ergo for Benediction. Also, the most perfect text on the Eucharist is the Adoro Te Devote chant, text by Saint Thomas Aquinas. This hymn is already in the Jubilate Deo Latin chant booklet mentioned above, but I think a good English translation ought to be in Catholic repertoire. The best translation is by Gerard Manley Hopkins. There are text adaptations perhaps easier to sing, but they stray very far from the original Latin. Saint Thomas worded it best!
When I asked my own choir members for their choices, the common answers included Panis Angelicus by Lambillotte, O Lord I Am Not Worthy, and several of the hymns on the above list.
So, having huddled all those together, I’ll mention here a hymn that is one of my favorites. It is a 19th-century folk-like melody, a bit on the sentimental side, but very singable.
The hymn is the work of that illustrious duo, Anonymous and Unknown, but it is definitely American in origin. The title alone could, as one priest reminded me, furnish much food for meditation: “O What Could My Jesus Do More?”
Lucy E. Carroll, D.M.A., is organist and music director at the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia, and adjunct associate professor at Westminster Choir College, Princeton. She is also the creator of Churchmouse Squeaks in AB.
1. Holy God We Praise Thy Name (AH* 461)
2. Ave Verum Corpus (chant AH 514)
3. Immaculate Mary (AH 532)
4. Come Holy Ghost (AH 443)
5. Hail Holy Queen, Enthroned Above (AH 530)
6. Jesus Christ Is Risen Today (AH 410)
7. Panis Angelicus (AH 523)
8. Salve Regina (AH 547)
9. Soul of My Savior (AH 522)
10. To Jesus Christ Our Sovereign King (AH 480)