Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Hymnal for the Hours--a Review

When you read what the General Instruction for the Liturgy of the Hours has to say about hymns, you are left scratching your heard, wondering what all this has to do with the hymns we are actually given to sing (or, for the unmusical, read) each day.

Today, for example, the choices given to us for Morning Prayer today  are "This Day God Gives Me" (tune: Morning Has Broken) or "God Father, Praise and Glory" .  There's nothing wrong with either of these hymns. I like the lyrics to "This Day God Gives Me", although the melody is  slightly grating because it is overused at my parish and has a bad 70s vibe dues to the popular cover of this hymn by Cat Stevens at that time. (yes, I know how much this dates me. I was in junior high at the time.)  But that's just me. For all I know, these lyrics combined with that melody is veritable spiritual manna for some. Moving on to "God Father, Praise and Glory" I decide to select this one. It has a traditional melody, is a bit  easier to sing if I have someone else doing Morning Prayer with me, and I also notice that the lyrics are more oriented towards God than the is "This Day God Gives Me". It's more about the greatness and goodness of God, the need to praise and adore Him, whereas the first selection is more about  Me and how God is going to help Me today.

So I sing or say the hymn I've chosen. But I never really feel that I'm actually praying the day's liturgy until the hymn is done and I've started the psalms. And the General Instruction gives me some hints as to why I feel this way.

 #173 says that the hymns of the LOTH are the "principal poetic part [of the Office] composed by the Church"    The selections in our breviaries have been composed by various Christian composers, some of them of fairly recent copyright, some of them by non-catholics. They were not, by and large, composed specifically for the Divine Office. So  that "composed by the Church" part is a little...fuzzy as it applies to what's in our breviaries.

#174 says the hymn is "traditionally concluded by a doxology" (a verse invoking the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, simliar to the Glory Be)  Although this morning's two hymn choices do have this feature, there are many days in the four week psalter where the hymn choices do not end with a doxology.

#  175 and 176 says there are "two series" of hymns for each hour, and for when the Office of Readings is said either during the day or as a vigil during the night. I don't see any hymns denoted in my breviary as belonging to one series or another.

#178 refers to "the Latin hymns" being adapted to the nature of  vernacular languages. This means that the ancient hymns written specifically for the Liturgy of the Hours, once having been translated into the vernacular, can have their ancient, traditional melodies adjusted or changed in order to accomodate the differences in syllable stress or grammatical structure or the vernacular language. We never get to see these hymns in our breviaries, whether in Latin or in translation. #178 does give permission to "introduce new compositions, provided that they suit the spirit of the hour" but does that mean we should only get new compositions and never see the old ones? Our bishops have made use of a legitimate "option" when they compiled our breviary in 1971, but their use of a single option has deprived the faithful of any other option.  And, although I don't want to give more examples here, some of the choices we are given seem to be less suitable to the spirit of the hour than one might wish.

But the good news is that I can quit complaining! It is now possible to access the ancient, traditional, official hymns for the Liturgy of the Hours, translated from Latin and even, if you like to sing them, set to Gregorian melodies.
Hymnal for the Hours
Thanks be to God for Father Samuel Weber and the Benedict XVI Institute for producing the Hymnal for the Hours.  This hymnal contains hundreds of hymns from the Roman breviary--the traditional hymns that have been largely withheld from us. Each has been translated into English. These are translations that either have been gathered from other sources, or in some cases, translations made by Fr. Weber himself. Each has been set to Gregorian melodies.  There are hymns for Morning and Evening Prayer (a two week cycle, so that you use one hymn for weeks 1&III; another for weeks II & IV), and also for Office of Readings, with both "daytime" and "vigil" cycles.  There are hymns for the holy seasons, for the commons of saints, and also for each solemnity, feast, and many individual saint's memorials. There's even hymns for the daytime hours and for Night Prayer.

You know what? You don't need my boring review. What you need to read is this recent interview with Fr. Weber about the hymnal. It's far more interesting than anything I could say.

The Hymnal for the Hours is not the only way to access these beautiful, official liturgical hymns.(It's just the most complete.) I've already written about the Mundelein psalter, a single volume breviary which includes the same selections for the 4-week psalter and a smaller selection of the seasonal hymns.  And if you are mainly interested in the texts rather than the music of these hymns, the ibreviary app generally includes a translation of the Roman hymn as its alternative (second) choice for Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer.

If you do buy the Hymnal for the Hours and are put off by the Gregorian notation (four line staff, square notes, movable clefs) then just get the iChant app, which gives you a virtual keyboard with a Gregorian staff superimposed on it. These chant melodies are for most part very easy to memorize, so once you've plunked them out a few times on iChant, and then sung them, they should stay with you forever.

And many thanks to alert reader Sid Cundiff who alerted me to the existence of the hymnal.