Review from the Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians

15 January 2014

It is billed as the "Public Launch of the Impossible Task." A feat ten years in the making, The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology is designed to be the successor to A Dictionary of Hymnology edited by John Julian, first published in 1892 with a 1907 revision that went through multiple printings over the years. This great effort is headed by editors J.R. Watson and Emma Hornby; the eminent hymnologist, Carlton Young, is among the regional editors. By its own admission the dictionary boasts "2 million words, over 4000 individual entries and more than 300 authors from over 30 countries." It is a very impressive effort and, despite its presence as an online resource only, is an exciting, scholarly, and much needed (and much longed-for) update of an historic research tool.

Once one has logged into the site, navigation is simple and intuitive. A bar across the top proffers various headers including "Categories," "Browse," and "News." "Categories" takes you to various tags such as people, places, or hymns. The "Browse" feature directs the user to an alphabetical listing of the complete entries of the dictionary. "News" is exactly that and, for those who desire up-to-the minute postings, there is a twitter feed on the home page. Articles vary in length depending on topic; all are signed and each ends with a "Request" box for site users to submit an addition or correction to the article. Live links take you to referenced material within an article (for example, tune names, if present, will take you to a text citation) and the side bar includes related articles and category tags. When appropriate, the article concludes with a short bibliography for further reading.

As a means of comparison, I chose six topics to view in both the printed predecessor (my copy is a 1957 reprint of the 1907 edition) and the online resource: "Isaac Watts," "Veni redemptor gentium," "John Stainer," "Emergent," "Peter Cutts," and "Antiphon."Two of these ("Emergent," "Peter Cutts") I knew would not appear in the 1957/ 1907 Julian Dictionary and were meant to view later accretions to hymnology. Not surprisingly, I found the articles in both versions to be of high scholarship and in many cases, reflected similar information albeit presented in different ways. Articles in both sources were signed and included extensive supplementary material such as tables, examples, and text extracts. The older Julian did not provide a bibliography, but it did include a substantial cross-reference index of first lines and an independent index of authors and translators of texts.

The first test entry, "Isaac Watts," received considerable attention in both resources. Canterbury grouped its information categorically (a table of contents appears on the right) and included a picture of the venerable author. Both sources provided tables listing the sources for his hymn tunes. "Veni redemptor gentium" also elicited similar entries between the two sources, both of which referenced the extensive translations of this Latin hymn (Julian provides more versions) and Canterbury includes separate articles on two of these translations. "Antiphon" too was treated with equal detail. Information on the medieval antiphon is more prominent in the online resource and both entries include a discussion on antiphonal singing practice (half sing/ half silent). But there are divergences. In the Canterbury resource, John Stainer receives appreciative treatment through an article by his recent biographer Jeremy Dibble. It was also one of the few articles I accessed that included musical examples. Stainer doesn't appear at all in Julian, despite having had sixteen tunes in the 1875 edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern. It is clearly an oversight, and I suspect a calculated one given the growing disdain in which Stainer was held throughout the near century after his death. Moving into the present day, Peter Cutts receives good notice in the online resource, including several links to the texts associated with his tunes. Chronology, of course, didn't permit him to appear in Julian. "Emergent," while not an available concept to Julian, also didn't appear as a category in Canterbury and this was a bit surprising. After a bit of digging, I did find articles on both John Bell and the Iona Community, so the resource is not without Emergent scholarship but it is simply not grouped under a banner.

The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology is available only as an online resource and accessed through a subscription process. Details are clearly demarcated on the website, but potential subscribers should note that payment will be taken in pounds sterling. As of this writing, there were three types of US subscriptions: a full year at £55 (889); three months at £43 (870), and one month at £18 (829). Institutional and multi-user subscriptions are also available. The thought behind this is that the online resource is always current, always updatable, and will never become obsolete like a printed tool. However, I don't reference my hymnology dictionary often so I'm not sure that I would be enticed to subscribe year after year. More importantly, and this is my real issue, the online-only presence of The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology means that we lose Zeitgeist, an important historical insight that we won't see for decades, perhaps centuries down the line. The issue raised in the John Stainer entry is a perfect example of this. The oversight by Julian speaks volumes, not about the resource per se, but about the age that created it. Being cast in stone, printed resources provide future generations with a specific snapshot of a specific age. An online-only, "ever new" resource lacks that tangibility, and with it we lose a mirror into our present-day cultural construct.

My own quirkiness aside, this is an amazing resource. The site is lightning fast, easy to use, and within moments of subscribing the user has a huge quantity of brilliant scholarship at their fingertips. The articles are thorough, extremely well researched, and many times lead you to places for further study should you desire it. This is a Herculean effort and the editors and authors are to be applauded for their exemplary work. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.


Erik W. Goldstrom

January 2014
The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians. 23 (1) pp 15-16