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Singing a new tune

Anastassia Boutsko/gnb
December 13, 2013

A new tome is making its way through Catholic churches in Germany. Updated for the first time in nearly 40 years, the church's official hymnal has added many well-liked, contemporary pieces.

The new Catholic hymnal "Gotteslob" (c) picture-alliance/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

For months, members of the German press have declared the introduction of the new "Gotteslob" (Praise of God) book of hymns a cultural event of European significance. Hundreds of church musicians, theologians and other experts compiled the book over a 12-year period. The initial print run is said to be in the region of 4 million copies, and the domestic book market is seeing strong sales.

The quality of the tome has drawn praise even beyond Catholic circles.

Regional variations

The new edition contains 1,300 pages. On the cover, three red threads intertwine, creating a stylized interpretation of the Trinity.

The book consists of a general, pan-Catholic main section that covers all 38 dioceses and includes some 285 songs, plus additional sections varying from region to region and including anything from 70 to 150 additional hymns. In total, there are 25 regions represented.

Copies of Gotteslob (c) picture-alliance/dpa
"Gotteslob" translates to "Praise of God"Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Soldiers' songs

But just how does one compile a comprehensive dossier of Catholic musical heritage? It was a long and complex process, explains Richard Mailänder, the diocesan music director in Cologne, "We worked through over 60 existing song books, and we received countless letters. Furthermore we sung in excess of 3,000 songs ourselves."

The previous edition of "Gotteslob" from 1975 served as a key source, as did contemporary hymn books from other denominations, such as the official hymn book of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKG) from 1993 and historical publications like "Cantate!" by Heinrich Bone. A native of the Sauerland near Cologne, the school teacher Bone began to compile a definitive record of church music heritage in Germany during his lifetime in the mid-19th century. However, his efforts weren’t recognized in his lifetime, and he died penniless in 1893.

Richard Mailänder's bookshelf houses hymn books used by soldiers fighting in World War I. "The first combined hymn book was published in 1914," he explains, "Otherwise, soldiers from different dioceses wouldn't have been able to sing together."

Heinrich Bone (c) gemeinfrei
"Cantate!" author Heinrich Bone died penniless in 1893Image: Gemeinfrei

Out with the old

The new volume's precursor was published in 1975 after the Second Vatican Council. Before the Council sessions between 1962 and 1965, congregational singing wasn't considered as integral a part of Catholic liturgy as it was in Protestant churches.

"The council made a binding decision regarding what churchgoers sang," says Richard Mailänder.

Of the almost 300 songs in the original "Gotteslob" hymn book, around half didn't stand the test of time.

"There was a significant number of songs in the book that were hardly sung anymore," says Mailänder. These overlooked songs were eliminated from the new edition to make way for newer, more popular hymns.

"'Mary Walked Through a Wood of Thorn' is one of the most famous, likewise 'By Gracious Powers,' based on a text by theologian and Nazi opponent Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or 'Jesus Christ, You are my Life,' a popular hymn sung at the Catholic World Youth Day. Some Latin is found in the new edition and also a number of songs influenced by orthodox traditions," he continues.

After the preliminary selection, the songs went through a further screening process. During this procedure, theologians, church musicians and women's rights as well as Christian-Jewish cooperation experts took part. Each of the 285 songs that made it into the main body of the book has been hand-picked several times over.

A church service inside a Catholic church (c) dW
Special church services were held to celebrate the introduction of the new bookImage: DW/A. Hornemann

A wealth of influences

The selection process was relaxed somewhat when it came to choosing regional hymns. Selection criteria was mainly based on local traditions. State-specific church songs have also been included, such as "Saints Full of Goodness, Protect the Land of Bavaria" and "On an Oath, Tyrolean Country!" from the diocese of Bolzano-Brixen in Northern Italy.

Hungarian songs can be found in the Austrian part, while the Cologne issue includes hymns in the traditional Kölsch dialect. In the edition for the archdiocese of Cologne, there are hymns based on texts by Edith Stein, otherwise known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, who was admitted to the Discalced Carmelite monastery of Cologne in 1933 - just one of many examples of church hymns reflecting more recent history.