Conducting Hymn Research

I thought some of you might like to know how I do research for my HYMN OF THE MONTH write-ups and so I thought I would take a moment to explain my methodology in hopes that it might inspire and help others. When doing my hymn research, the first step for me is the selection process. Several factors will affect my decision.

  • my own familiarity with the hymn, i.e., The New Born King
  • newly discovered information about the author or composer, i.e., Sweet Name
  • does the hymn fall into any of the categories for Catholic devotions for that month

For example: June is the month of the Sacred Heart, November is the month for All Souls, October is the month of The Holy Rosary, May is the month of Our Blessed Mother, and so on.

Next, to gather information on the hymn, I refer to my prime resource History of American Catholic Hymnals – Survey and Background (1982), and the Handbook for American Catholic Hymnals (1976), written by J. Vincent Higginson, Mus. B., M.A., former President of the Hymn Society of America, an organist, author, and composer. Mr. Higginson’s pioneer research of over thirty years, provides information on the subject of vernacular Catholic hymnody from 1787 to 1970. These two books are a treasure trove of data for anyone interested in American Catholic hymnody. On an aside, he compiled the Catholic hymnal Mediator Dei in 1954 under the pseudonym Cyr De Brant.

In addition to Mr. Higginson’s research, I turn to A Dictionary of Hymnology by John Julian. His work covers the origin and history of Christian hymns of all ages and nations, up to and including the early years of the 20th century. The first edition of his work published in 1892 was one volume. The second revised edition still as one volume was published in 1907. Then in 1957, Dover Publications of New York reprinted John Julian’s work in its entirety in two volumes.

By comparing both Mr. Higginson’s and John Julian’s research and finding similar results, I can be reasonably certain that the data is accurate. However, over time I have discovered errors in these resources. The errors became the impetus for me to start my own library of Catholic hymnals. I also adopted an old axiom, trust but verify.

Other printed resources include:

  • The Early Hymn Writers of Pennsylvania by Lucy E. Carroll, 2008
  • Sing of Mary by Stephanie A. Budwey, 2014
  • The Papers from the Hymn Society, 1948
  • Converts to Rome During the 19th Century by W. Gordon-Gorman, 1885
  • Roman Catholic Music in England: 1850-1962 by Thomas Muir, 2004
  • The Latin Hymn-Writers and Their Hymns by Samuel Duffield, 1889
  • The Popular Marian Hymn in Devotion and Liturgy by Fr. Thomas A. Thompson, S.M., 1994
  • Roman Catholic Catechesis in the United States 1784-1930 by Charles J. Carmody, 1975

My own collection of Catholic hymnals is my next prime resource. They now number over 150 dating from around the 1840s thru the 1970s. I have some modern hymn books, like the Adoremus, Gather III, Glory & Praise, and a few others, but I typically don’t refer to them as a resource because, 90% of Catholic devotional hymns have been removed. 

I also do my best to maintain a parallel collection of hymnals scanned by Google or made available online, such as from Corpus Christi Watershed. Having a scanned copy of the hymnal makes it much more effecient when searching the contents. In addition to my American collection of hymnals, I have hymnals from England, France, Ireland, Australia, and Scotland. I also use the Internet Archive, ChoralWiki, and other online resources such as The Caecilia Archives and The Catholic Choirmaster Archives.

Prayer is also one of my resources, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened, ask and you shall receive, this was the case for the hymn Ave Maria, Bright and Pure. I also have library access for both Cleveland and Akron libraries. I often explore the newspaper clippings and other historical data in connection to a hymn.  

One of the last steps is to examine the different melodies. Some hymns like Bring Flowers of the Rarest have had only one melody throughout its existence while others like God of Mercy and Compassion have several. I use MuseScore to engrave the music and generate an mp3 audio files. 

Often times, I contact Peter Meggison, producer of The Devotional Hymns Project. Peter has been collecting Catholic hymnals for many years and has been extremely helpful in supplying sheet music or SATB arrangements of melodies I can’t find. His knowledge on hymnody is bar none. Peter has also been more than kind in granting me permission to link to newly commissioned recordings of the hymns I write about. Please take some time to visit his website and enjoy the many beautiful recordings and learn more about our rich heritage of Catholic music.

I am also grateful to Noel Jones, Creative Director at Sacred Music Library who published A Catholic Book of Hymns & Chants. Noel has often granted me permission to link to this wonderful hymn collection.

Many of my hymn write-ups would not be possible were it not for the help I receive from the archivists of religious communities and university libraries. A recent example of their help was for the hymn God of Mercy and Compassion.

Needless to say, many hours are spent researching a particular hymn. Sometimes it happens that I will discover an author or composer of one hymn while researching another. This was true for the hymn O Sacred Heart, O Love Divine. Some might call it luck, or coincidence that I locate information on an author or composer, but I like to think that Blessed Mother is guiding my hand and would like a certain melody or story to be known again.

I hope this short explanation of the steps I take to do my research will suffice for those who are curious, who might want to start doing research on their own, or who are in doubt of the accuracy about my work.

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