The Brébeuf Hymnal: An Interview with Jeff Ostrowski

Some months ago, Jeff Ostrowski, President of Corpus Christi Watershed and choirmaster at the FSSP apostolate in Los Angeles, contacted me for some thorough background on the Huron carol. This was my first inkling that his most recent project, the St. Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal, would be a uniquely important contribution to Catholic music. I recently spoke to Jeff about this new book.

 Readers may be familiar with some of your earlier work, such as the Jogues Missal (2014), and the Campion Missal & Hymnal (2013). What makes this one unique, and why do you call it the “most Catholic hymnal to appear in seventy years”?

Approximately seventy years ago, there were hymnals in which every page was 100% Catholic. Examples would include the New Westminster Hymnal, Mediator Dei Hymnal, Pius X Hymnal, Laudate Hymnal, Pius XII Hymnal, Cantate Omnes Hymnal, and so forth. In the 1960s, Catholic hymnals changed radically, imitating or “building upon” Protestant hymn books. The 1990s brought a new crop of hymnals seeking to eliminate flagrant heresies and goofy melodies; unfortunately, these books still basically followed the Protestant hymnal model.

The Brébeuf Hymnal does not simply avoid heresy and eliminate undignified melodies; our book is Catholic to the core. Its 932 pages present fantastic translations of the authentic Catholic hymns, painstakingly wedded to simple-yet-sublime melodies. When I say the “authentic” hymns, I mean the traditional Catholic hymns which contain deep theology: Pange Lingua, Rex Sempiterne, Verbum Supernum, Rebus Creatis Nil Egens, Vexilla Regis, Sancti Venite, Audi Benigne, Ave Maris Stella, Adoro Te Devote, and so forth.

I’m glad you mentioned the Isaac Jogues Missal, because this new hymnal was created by the same institute. Stated more precisely, it was created by a team assembled by the JP2 Institute; and quite a varied group it was, consisting of diocesan priests (“Ordinary Form”), FSSP priests (“Extraordinary Form”), and the laity of both sexes. My degree is Music Theory, so I was heavily involved with the musical aspects.

For whom was this hymnal created? How do you envision priests and parishes adopting and using it?

It can be used in many wonderful ways. Suppose you have a newly-ordained, faithful priest in the Ordinary Form. He doesn’t know much about music, but he wants to eliminate “theologically questionable” hymn texts and goofy tunes. Having hired a competent musician, this priest can now tell his musician to choose hymns only from the Brébeuf Hymnal; and he will know beyond a shadow of a doubt these texts are truly excellent and eminently singable. This is but one example of how the Brébeuf Hymnal will make a difference at the parish level.

Your list of source material is staggering—it’s almost a dissertation on Catholic hymnody all by itself. How did you decide which hymns to include?

We often gave priority to the most ancient texts. For example, Sancti Venite is the oldest Latin Eucharistic hymn. O Sola Magnarum is a Catholic hymn from the 4th century! Ad Cenam Agni is likewise extremely ancient. Moreover, we spent several years formulating a remarkable system by which congregations unfamiliar with good hymn melodies—alas, a very common situation!—can go through the entire liturgical year with a handful of melodies only. Year after year, more melodies can be added in a gradual way that won’t cause consternation. No effort was spared in this regard.

Fr. Christopher Smith called the Brébeuf Hymnal “a work of incredible scholarship.” That seems like an unusual compliment for a hymnal! Can you give readers an idea of the kind of research that went into this?

Certainly; consider the tunes. Before work began, we assembled a dazzling array of hymnals—some of them incredibly rare—and carefully sorted every single melody according to meter (which took several years). As a result, we could instantly compare all the different versions of a given melody, as well as all the different harmonizations. In other words, we wanted to organize every possible “piece” before putting together the puzzle. This required an insane amount of work, but I can’t imagine any other approach capable of yielding a comparable result. What a terrible mistake it would be for an editor to consult only a handful of hymnals! The tiny footnotes at the bottom of each page demonstrate that we have not invented a new tradition; we have rescued the old Catholic tradition.

Are there any new hymns?

We commissioned marvelous new texts and melodies for this book. I was taken aback by the high quality of the melodies submitted. Obviously, we also included the “standard” hymns every Catholic knows.

You stated that some rare Latin hymns are here translated for the first time?

Yes, our book is the only place you can find literal translations of certain Latin hymns—to say nothing of the metrical (rhyming) versions we provide!

I was delighted to see so much attention given to the towering St. Jean de Brébeuf and his fellow missionaries. To what extent did their work influence the hymnal?

The lives of these great martyrs had a tremendous influence on our work; and I hope everyone will carefully read the Preface, which describes in detail why we chose Saint Brébeuf as our patron. To give just one example, Brébeuf became (at that time) the world’s expert in American languages: Montagnais, Huron, and Iroquois. He never intended this, but it was the only way to evangelize—so he did it, and spent years creating valuable dictionaries and translating theological works for the Native Americans. As our committee spent hours studying—and arguing over!—the hymn translations for this book, we could not help but remember Father Brébeuf’s emphasis on language, although our efforts could never, of course, be compared to those of the saint and his companions.

The announced digital aspect of this project is fascinating as well. Tell us about your plans for additional online material.

We are providing rehearsal videos to help volunteer choirs learn to sing in parts: Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass. Too many Catholic choirs never sing hymns in parts. Also, priests who don’t read music can sample the YouTube files and see for themselves how the Brébeuf melodies are within reach of their congregations—especially because these YouTube videos were not produced by professional singers!

How can people order copies?

You can pre-order your copy today (highly recommended). The final manuscript was submitted in October, and the books are scheduled to begin shipping later this month. The quickest way to find the website is to type “Brebeuf Hymnal” into Google. Or you can visit:

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