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The Living ChurchJuly 18, 1999Musician, Linguist, Priest and Poet by Dorothy Mills Parker 219(3) p. 13

Musician, Linguist, Priest and Poet
charles winfred douglas
by Dorothy Mills Parker

Winfred Douglas was largely responsible for bringing plainsong, the ancient music of liturgical worship, into general use, and with it the full choral service.


In the annals of church music in the 20th century, the name of Charles Winfred Douglas still shines brightly. Musician, linguist, priest and poet, his translations and arrangements of medieval and reformation hymnody have greatly enriched the Episcopal Church. He moreover was largely responsible for bringing plainsong, the ancient music of liturgical worship, into general use, and with it the full choral service.

Winfred Douglas, born at Oswego, N.Y., in 1867, received the Mus.B. at Syracuse University, and after local study at St. Andrew's Divinity School, was ordained deacon. Shortly thereafter, in 1894, he went west for his health to Denver, as minor canon at St. John's Cathedral, settling nearby at Evergreen, where he was priested in 1899. It was here, years later, that he founded the Evergreen Conference and its famed School of Church Music, still in continuance today, where each summer participants had the benefit of his scholarly teaching, gentle humor and deep spirituality. He studied extensively in England, Germany and France, especially with the Benedictine monks of Solesmes.

From 1906 he was music director of the Community of St. Mary at Peekskill, N.Y. Here he carried on the adaptation of English texts to the austerely beautiful chant tunes, and the production of countless music editions, articles, and books. He had become canon in the Diocese of Fond du Lac in 1907, and later a trustee of Nashotah House, which gave him an honorary doctorate. An acclaimed musicologist and liturgist, he lectured widely, and headed numerous learned societies.

Over the years he edited many definitive works, notably The Choral Service, American Psalter, Plainsong Psalter, Monastic Diurnal. In 1933 he published the St. Dunstan Kyrial, his compilation of 12 plainsong masses and other service music.

As a member of the Joint Commission on Hymnal Revision his work on The New Hymnal of 1916 led to the transition from the heavily Victorian content of its predecessor. For The Hymnal 1940, with Canon Douglas as music editor, contained his many translations or arrangements of German chorales, Latin office hymns, all the plainsong tunes, and the Missa Marialis, a plainsong setting for the Eucharist. His hymnody lives on in The Hymnal 1982, which also features seven plainsong masses and plainsong for other services.

Episcopalians today know and love the Christmas chorale Vom Himmel Hoch, the great medieval processionals Lauda Sion, Pange Lingua, Vexilla Regis, and his own familiar He who would valiant be. And whole congregations now sing the Communion Service to Missa de Angelis.

In 1943 he started work on The 1940 Hymnal Companion, but did not live to see its completion. A year later he began composing an organ prelude one day, finished it the next, and died that evening, January 18, at the age of 77.

Of the myriad tributes from around the world, his colleagues on the hymnal commission said it best: "He was Catholic in the complete sense of the word, a member of the Universal Church who was happily at home in all parts of it ... He began his career dedicated to the Praise of God. He ended his life with the Praise of God on his mind and pen, and in his heart."

His portrait is the frontispiece of The Hymnal 1940 Companion, which is dedicated to his "dear and honored memory," and his library is now at the Washington National Cathedral for the use of future scholars. o

Dorothy Mills Parker was Washington correspondent for TLC for 26 years until her retirement in 1995.