Friday, August 28, 2009

ICEL Giveth, ICEL Taketh Away

People often ask what is the best Catholic hymnal in print with English hymns. Without meaning to slight other products out there, my answer is one from 1981, a book I had never heard of until about two weeks ago.

In fact, I seriously doubt that many people know about it. I'm not sure I understand its origin or purpose or why it is not more famous. In its current state, it is not usable for parishes and it is not clear that it was ever intended to be. You can buy it but you have to look hard to find it, even though it is in print. The cover is nothing special and it has a strange name. Lots of work went into it but it is not marketed to any great extent, if at all.

My answer is the ICEL Resource Collection. It is sold by GIA. You can't find it among their hymnal listings. You have to do a search of the site to turn up the product. There is no picture. The description is as bare as it can possibly be:

"250 Hymns in the Public Domain. 106 settings of music for the Rites of the Church."

The contents are fantastic in every way. The text is in tact. The melodies are great, the best that hymnody has to offer. As suggested in the description, all 250 English-language hymns are in the public domain. That took some research to discover. Public domain means that the text and melodies are part of the commons of the faith. There is no restriction at all on performing them or marketing them or printing them or arranging them.

And look at the time in which the book came out: 1981. That was right in the thick of one of the biggest crisis in the history of Church music. In the Catholic Church, this hymnal might have sparred us much pain and suffering. At a time when nearly everything coming out of the publishing houses was, well, I won't characterize it. Let's just leave it that this collection, widely distributed, would have put matters on sound track. The public domain aspect of it would have saved millions in royalty payments.

What a gift to the faith! But wait: there is more to the strangeness of this product. The front matter says that the hymns are public domain, but still restricts their printing. How so? Well, it is an interesting thing. The texts are part of the common. The hymn tunes are part of the commons. But ICEL came up with an interesting little proviso: they claimed copyright to the typography! That means that you couldn't so much as slap a page on a copy machine without breaking the law - even though the content is public domain.

I don't understand why ICEL/GIA would have done this, or maybe I do. One can't be sure. In any case, the proviso left this book to suffer alone and unused. One wonders why they bothered to put it out at all.

I'm imagining a conjectural history in which someone at ICEL had the very good impulse of saving parishes money and getting great hymns out to the public. Then at the last minute, some powerful person swung in to defeat the whole purpose of the thing by adding one sentence to the front matter.

Given the prevailing business model of copyright/royalties, and the war chests that publishers pride themselves in accumulating in the dog-eat-dog world of publish-to-parish marketing, one can see why this product had no place: no one benefits from it except Catholic people and the Catholic liturgy generally.

The CMAA working on a work around right now.