The Untold Story of Erik Routley and “The Summit Choirbook”

Nancy L. Graham

The Summit Choirbook is little known outside of the Dominican monasteries which use the book. I first became aware of it from a rather bland and perfunctory article on Erik Routley on Wikipedia. Disappointed with searches on used-book sites, a visit to directed me to the Dominican nuns at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in Summit, NJ. A visit to their website led me to the contact form, where I requested the hymnal. After a few months, and a longish thread of emails, the book arrived at my doorstep. The first thing I noticed was that the only identification of the Editors was “Dominican Nuns of Summit”. The descriptive and succinct Foreword is vintage Routley: scholarly, straightforward, and humorously self-deprecating. I arranged a visit to the monastery in early March 2022 to learn more about this enigmatic book. I was greeted warmly by Sr. Mary Martin, current Prioress, and led into a tiny room where she told the story of the book.

The spiritual renewal outlined by Vatican II challenged Roman Catholics to celebrate the liturgy in song. Sr. Maria of the Cross, a brilliant organist and composer who was Prioress of this monastery at the time, was eager to adopt these changes but wanted to maintain the deeply rooted Dominican tradition of chant, polyphony, and hymnody in the Order. Knowing Routley’s reputation as an editor of hymnals, she contacted him asking for advice. At the time he was living in Newcastle-on-Tyne. Routley obliged by the next mail and the two quietly began a detailed conversation on the project. Unbeknownst to any family or friends, while in the US in July 1973, Routley visited the monastery – a visit Sr. Mary remembers with delight and reverence. He was impressed with the expressive and faithful singing of the nuns and suggested that the title should be “Choir Book” as the contents were often polyphonic and responsorial and sung by all the residents, making them, effectively, the choir. It is a comprehensive collection of material, from antiphons and plainsong to Protestant hymnody and Southern harmony. To support the purpose of the book, Sr. Maria scoured any sources for settings and tunes, many of which she wrote herself.

Because it was such a specific book, the Prioress had trouble finding a publisher, even with Routley’s help, and eventually had it published privately, but it wasn’t released until 1983. Routley had died unexpectedly a year earlier. His Foreword is dated 1975, and in it he observes that “the collection stands out by manifesting a quite unusual combination of learning and grace, modesty of style, fastidious scholarship, and remarkable breadth. I find in these pages a poised and dignified joy.” The community sent a copy to Margaret Routley, who was shocked because she knew nothing about it. Though the book is used daily at the Summit location and other Dominican monasteries, it only had one printing and so obtaining a copy is not easy. Only seven unused copies remain. Fortunately, many academic libraries hold a copy.

Telling the story took nearly an hour. Sr. Mary softly excused herself and then returned with the first handwritten manuscript and a thick file of correspondence – surprisingly saying that the manuscript was mine. I asked if I could purchase two more copies and she reluctantly said that there are none for sale. When monasteries dissolve, they send their hymnals to Summit. Sr. Mary left the room again and came back with a very used hymnal for me to keep, but in exchange, she wants a copy of my Routley book! Eventually, the letters will be returned to the archives at the monastery, and I will place the book and copies of the letters in the Routley Collection at Talbott Music Library in Lawrenceville, NJ.