Naming the Alleluias (and remembering which is which)

Keeping track of proliferating Alleluias

When I started the blog on Gospel Acclamations, or Alleluias, I was vaguely thinking that I needed to talk about the names we’ve given them.  Then the blog turned out to be too large and had to be split into two parts, and when I’d finished talking about the verse words in Part Two, I realised that I still hadn’t got around to explaining the names. So I parked it for a little while, but now we are rushing towards the end of the Church’s year when different names stop being relevant for a while anyway, and I realised that I needed to get on with it.   The topic of naming and the importance of names came up in our new Bible study, and I realised there was more to it than I had thought.

God creating earth
In the beginning
Genesis and the beginning of names

Our group has just launched this year’s Bible study, and we’re doing Genesis. This is a new departure for us, as everything else so far has been from the New Testament. I have to admit that I was the person originally pushing for Genesis because St Paul was giving me indigestion and there’s an awful lot of St Paul to study in the New Testament. I would like to study Job, but we couldn’t find a suitable study. Then we found a study for Genesis, and I managed to persuade the others. It’s fascinating so far.

Creation with God at centre
Here is God creating but not naming the animals (you can tell because he has clothes on)

Apart from the obvious attraction of studying slowly something which you (wrongly) might have thought was so familiar (two Creation accounts, two special trees in the garden), all sorts of small things come up every week.  We’re still in the early stages, of course, but something that struck me forcibly was the account of Adam naming all the creatures.

Adam shares the naming
Adam with assorted beasts
Here are the animals waiting to be named

God does the cosmic naming (light, heaven, earth, seas etc), but all the birds and beasts and creepy-crawlies are brought to Adam (in the second account) ‘to see what he would call them’, (Genesis 2) and whatever he calls them is their true name and expresses their essence.

This is one of the ways in which Adam exerts dominion.  Or you might say responsibility : you can name only something that you have responsibility for. God allowing Adam to name the creatures gives him a role which makes him different from them.

Adam names the beasts
I particularly like the dragon, but the legless snake shouldn’t be there yet

When you make something, you can name it because you know it better than anyone else does, and naming has power, it expresses essence.  You can name your own children (though some people have huge difficulty with this and planning it seems to take longer than the baby takes to grow), you can name anything you make, or write, or compose, or create, like a new rose.  (Genesis omits the question of who called the rose a rose.)

Names need to mean something

This is slightly intimidating when I think of how informally I thought about the Alleluias when I started.  It was quickly clear that there needed to be more than one (the metre of the verse words was the main factor here), and I started by just giving them numbers, although we already had one (Mayfield) named because I was doing the Mass, and at that point everything felt like part of the same batch.   This did mean though that I avoided using Alleluia  No 1 to start with, in the best traditions of numbering things, and indeed, we still haven’t got an official Alleluia No 1 (somehow it feels as though it wouldn’t be fair on the others).

Go forth and multiply

The problem with numbering was that it was arbitrary and depended entirely on when I wrote something, which was no help remembering which was which.  The next few Alleluias took their name from some association, because I hoped they would be easier to remember, like the Clock Alleluia, which starts with the chime of our bonging clock.  There is another group attached to certain stages of the Church’s year : Advent, Easter, Christmas.  This works,  except that it limits when you feel happy using them.  I use the Christmas Alleluia for Mary the Mother of God, for example, for obvious reasons, but you can’t use an Advent Alleluia in the middle of Ordinary Time even if the tune feels right, because the associations are wrong.  So the Pentecost Alleluia was quickly renamed Alleluia No 4, because it was too useful to be limited to Pentecost season.  If your congregation really likes one particular Alleluia, you can usually substitute it for the one set for a particular Sunday (not if it’s one of the less frequent 3/4 ones, though), and if you need it transposing, just e-mail me.   I ended up having to produce a list of current Alleluias for ease of reference, and we call it Alleluias Inc.

Names easier than numbers

Some of the names are just private references.  The Jacob Alleluia is because the tune climbs slowly up a ladder, like in Jacob’s dream of the angels and the old spiritual.  The Wimbledon Alleluia just wombles around itself.  The Michael Alleluia has a little quotation from another spiritual, Michael, Row the boat ashore, that we used to sing in the car when we were little (easy words and a better tune than many nursery songs, and the second verse actually mentions a sister, which we girls liked).

The Simple Alleluia only has two repeats of the word ‘alleluia’, not the usual three.  The Step has a dance rhythm.  The Stuart is a canon Alleluia (one of the ones that continues round and round under the verse words), and I called it after Mary Queen of Scots’ motto ‘In my end is my beginning’ because I was really having trouble remembering them all by now.  The Wedding Alleluia is short, catchy and quick to pick up for people who are full of goodwill but may not go to church that often.

Autres pays, autres mélodies

With the OZ Alleluias, I tried a different tack.  One of my other interests is women’s fiction from the nineteenth century, so I used the names of a couple of authors, Miles Franklin and Ethel Turner.  That’s not actually any more help with remembering them quickly, though….  I haven’t written any specifically Canadian Alleluias yet, but I have found myself using the OZ ones for other countries, so I need to decide whether they should be country-specific.  I suspect not.

The Petropavlovsk Alleluia was a little joke.  I wrote it for a friend whose middle names are Peter Paul (guess when his birthday is), and he was in Russia at the time.

Special cases : the Lent Acclamations and the Advent Alleluia

The Lent Gospel Acclamations cause Volmar the Vebmaster and me terrible trouble every year because they somehow escape even when you think you’re on top of them (see previous blog, and here is the helpful illustration).

Hunting the Bonnacon, a mythical beast
Getting to grips with the Lent Gospel Acclamation

Luckily the Advent equivalent does not cause nearly so many problems.  For one thing, the words are still ‘Alleluia’, instead of being several different (but only slightly) sets of words, varying from country to country but also from week to week, like the various Lent Gospel Acclamations.  So the point about the Advent Alleluias is more to get the overall trajectory right, and I can use the same Alleluia for everyone, just changing the tune for the changing verse words.  And, except for the fourth week of Advent, the verse words are the same for each Sunday across all three years of the Lectionary (though obviously different for each set of countries).

Moving forward towards Christmas

Working with the Advent Alleuias, then, I tried to make them point forwards towards the celebration of Christmas, using 3/4 instead of the usual 4/4 Alleluia, because it always feels as though it has a forward impetus and feels a bit like dancing.  Much of the Christmas music is in 3/4, I think because lots of carols are (and many started as dances), and that, plus bouncy counter-rhythms, adds to the folky feel, which is what I’m after: nothing sophisticated, just a building childlike excitement, looking forward to what’s coming.

Advent and Christmas Alleluias : two names that work

And I don’t even have to think of another name for this one.  It’s just called the Advent Alleluia.  We have it only for the four weeks of Advent, when it gives way to the Christmas Alleluia, which is bigger, triumphant and even has an optional descant.  It’s meant to sound like cascading Christmas bells on Christmas morning, and it’s dead easy – you only need a small group to sing it, because it happens in counterpoint to the main tune, and it doesn’t take five minutes to learn.  Just as I collect only easy recipes, I only write easy-to-sing music, so why not try it? Again like my recipes, you get the maximum effect for the minimum effort!

mediaeval dancers in a line
Christmas dancing, about 1300 AD. Note the little hop : that’s my counter-rhythm!

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The stress of saying ‘I love you’

Short responses can cause problems of stress

The Response for Psalm 17/18 looks incredibly straightforward : ‘I love you, [O] Lord, my strength’, – but this is deceptive. It’s the first line of the psalm, which makes it an obvious and fitting Response, but it’s tricky to deal with.  This is all because of stress.

men in white singing from shared copy
Trying to get the stress right
Starting with an unstressed word

At least, I started out thinking it was all because of stress, but now I think there is more to it than that. But let’s look at the stress first. The first note in any musical bar carries a stress, and when you set words to music, you have to take this into account. Because it has definite articles, English has a lot of initial unstressed syllables, and those can’t go on the first beat of the bar. So if your line is (say) ‘The Lord is a man of war’, you have to put ‘the’ on an unstressed, lead-up note in the preceding bar, so that you hit ‘Lord’ on the first beat of the second bar, as Handel demonstrates so beautifully.  All the settings of (for example) ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ have to place the stress like this.

Stress, rhythm and meaning

With a sentence like ‘I love you, [O] Lord, my strength’, as soon as you put it to music, you commit to one reading.  Am I stressing that I, personally,  love God as opposed to all the other people haring after false gods? Am I stressing that my feelings are strong and intense? At a pinch I can have two beats before the first note of the next bar, so I could stress that it’s you, God, that I love and certainly not anyone else. That [O] makes things even trickier. Without it, the line is one breath group; with it, there is a step in the middle. It takes up more space than you expect, without altering the meaning.

Lord and O Lord

Only Canada has the [O], but I was concentrating on Canada, because the [O] meant that I had to alter the tune completely.  Setting ‘I love you, Lord, my strength’  (US, UK and OZ Lectionaries) had not been too problematic.  I put the ‘I’ in as the last beat of the previous bar, and dwelt on the ‘love’ as the important word, with the ‘my strength’ just flowing as almost part of the name of the person addressed.  The US version is 3/4, the other 4/4, so the problem was not that the rhythm of the words was too strong.  However, neither seemed to work once the [O] was there.  Eventually I came up with a compromise for the Canada psalm which worked for me: ‘I’ is the first beat of the bar, but ‘love’ has a longer note (and a higher one), and the whole thing was in 3/4, so that it has a rocking rhythm, but the words of the Response move slightly against that rhythm.  Then I had to write a new verse tune, because the words are different from the other versions anyway….  If anyone else has not totally glazed over by this point, the first strophe in the US version starts,’I love you, O Lord’ (and the CAN one then drops the [O]) , so you move directly into that from the Response, just to keep you on your toes.

The stress of saying ‘I love you’

When I was thinking about it, though, it struck me that the psalms are the only place in the Bible where someone simply says ‘I love you’ to God, and it’s not surprising that it’s slightly awkward because it’s not something we say all that often.  (I am not specifically talking about romantic love here, though even in those circumstances, many people find ways to say that differently.  I am not including the Song of Songs in any of the general comments I am making about love, either.)  Some people can’t actually say it in words at all, except in moments of great stress (deathbeds, for example);  some don’t choose to, because they show love in a non-verbal way.  There is a beautiful poem by U. A. Fanthorpe, called Atlas, which expresses this perfectly.  Some languages use other, different words to say ‘love’ – the usual Italian for I love you actually translates as I wish you well, and Georgian uses the ethic dative, a bit like the ethic dative with placet in Latin.  French, like English, takes refuge in fuzziness: ‘aimer’ covers ‘like’ and ‘love’, and no two people will agree on the exact distinction between them (I love the smell of new-mown grass and I really like that particular cousin).

Weighty words

There seems to be tension about saying ‘I love you’, one might call it stress, either because it means so much (and we don’t want to lay ourselves open to that extent) or because if we keep saying it, it indicates that we don’t mean much by it.  The first is almost like the way a taboo works, or like the traditional Chinese avoidance of giving a new baby a name until it has survived a year, for fear that it will be snatched away.

The stress of saying it to God

So the psalmist sings,’I love you, Lord, my strength’ , and this is a really unusual thing to say to God directly.  In various books of the Bible, the speaker/writer describes how God has rescued him, supported him, brought him safe out of trouble and so on.  God is regularly described as doing something because of his love for us.  However, it’s difficult to imagine Moses or Abraham approaching God and telling him that they love him; the dialogue is on a different level.  The emphasis is on fear and enormous respect.  God talks about loving us, in some of the prophetic books (especially Hosea), but it’s usually indirect speech or general, rather than individual and specific.

Jesus and the question of love

When Jesus meets the rich young man, the narrative tells us that he looked upon him and loved him, but of course he does not tell him so (Mark 10).   When people see his tears for the dead Lazarus, they say, ‘See how he loved him!’ ( John 11.36) – third person, and past tense, so it’s safe.    The New Testament has a lot more about love (and less about fear), culminating in Jesus’ triple question to Peter after the Resurrection, which Peter handles very well, but it clearly makes him a bit uncomfortable, especially in the repetition (John again, chapter 21, and it isn’t in any of the synoptic accounts).   Jesus follows each question with the instruction to look after his sheep, which can only have confused Peter still further.  But I am trying to concentrate on the Psalms.

tending the sheep (with added music)
Putting it to music might mean less stress

You might expect that poems or songs (poems with tunes) would find it easier to deal with saying ‘I love you’ than prose, and I think that’s true, but only up to a point.  Simple declarations of love are still quite unusual.  Something is used to insert distance.  The Beatles’ ‘She loves you’ is in the third person ( though their songs became more direct later), and the ‘yeah yeah yeah’ makes it sound less serious .  Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s apparently spontaneous outpouring of love in Sonnet 43 uses the archaic ‘thee’ instead of you, which immediately removes the intimacy (obviously, if you go historically farther back, the ‘thee’ might be natural, but it isn’t here; even in Shakespeare it would be borderline).  ‘Thee I love‘ uses the archaic Quaker ‘thee’ plus inversion, to make it even less direct.  The cheesiness of these examples goes some way to proving my point.  People sing ‘I love you’ directly at each other in opera, but not as often as you might think; and it’s in a foreign language; and opera must have the biggest Verfremdungseffekt of all time anyway.

Fiddler with dancer
The power of music : leaning over backwards to express something
Telling God, and describing his love

It’s particularly startling to see ‘I love you’ in the psalms because it’s addressed to the Almighty, and yet the simple words suggest a shocking intimacy and equivalence.  To say it, places the speaker and the person addressed on the same level.  This is why it’s rare even in the psalms, because it involves a huge mental jump.  The intimate (you might call it mano a mano if you were the Sheriff of Rottingham) directness is specific to the psalms.   It brings the reader/singer up with a jolt where it occurs.  Saint Therese (the little one) addressed Jesus as ‘tu’ when she spoke or wrote to him, but her first editors corrected it to the more formal ‘vous’, feeling it was more appropriate.   (She does use ‘vous’ for God, though.)  David’s psalms would definitely translate as ‘tu’.

two people embracing
Love on the level

Most of the love in the psalms is an abstract noun.  There is a lot of discussion about God’s love for various just men, for his people, for the nation and so on.  The psalmist in the first person talks about his love for God’s law (at great length), about his love for God’s commands and decrees, his works, his precepts, his will, his name, his house (psalms passim).  The psalmist repeatedly calls on God to rescue him’in your love’, or uses ‘for his love endures forever’ as a recurring chorus (or even every other line, Ps 135/136).   It’s usually God doing the loving, and even so, the word is relatively rare as a verb.

Psalms that say ‘I love you’ to God

Psalm 17/18  is where we started, with the human doing the asserting : I love you, Lord (and even putting the O in cannot make it vague.  It changes the rhythm, but we are so used to addressing God with an O that we have become desensitised).  It’s not surprising to find that this is one of the psalms which we think is by David himself.   Another line later in the same psalm demonstrates again the equality which is so arresting : ‘he brought me forth into freedom, he saved me because he loved me’.  Psalm 114/115 has a similar movement, but it’s moved again into the third person : ‘I love the Lord for he has heard the cry of my appeal…..I was helpless so he saved me’.  Psalm 143/144 does not say ‘I love you’, but has a similar feel in an ecstatic chant : ‘He is my love, my fortress; he is my stronghold, my saviour’.  Fortresses and strongholds are not unusual adjuncts when love comes up in the psalms, I think to prove that this is all very manly and not a bit sissy.

Mythical boat with monsters
The sort of thing that the Lord can save us from

The rarity of saying ‘I love you’ to God in the Old Testament is because of humility and deep respect rather than any lack of love.  Psalmists and Bible writers encourage everyone to fear, respect, trust and bless the Lord, by instancing his past deeds and the wonders of creation.   David had a more son-like relationship with God, so he could sing ‘I love you, Lord’, but most of us had to wait until Jesus showed us that he actually prefers to be addressed as ‘Father’, and ‘I love you’ is an entirely appropriate response.

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