The verse words : Gospel Acclamations Part 2

The Alleluia comes first, but the words are the message

Everyone refers to the ‘the Alleluia’, because that is the bit that doesn’t change, that repeats every week (except during Lent).  It is the frame to a verse from the Gospels (usually), and this verse changes (almost) every week, to highlight something about the coming Gospel. The words of the Gospel verse are very important.  They are the filling in the Alleluia sandwich.  You can make sandwiches out of several different sorts of bread, but most people are most interested in what is between the slices.

Ornate wooden seesaw
Alleluias at both ends, but the fulcrum is the verse, a container for the meaning
Lots of different Alleluia verses

Those various parenthetical hedges leave quite a lot of leeway for alteration, but one of the startling things about the Alleluia verse for me is how much variation there is between the different national Lectionaries.  Some differences are predictable : some Lectionaries are more concerned to be inclusive than others. Some prefer to keep the words as they appear in the text, whereas others are relaxed about paraphrasing them.  Sometimes a bit of context or narrative framing is added (‘says the Lord’, for example).  Sometimes you feel that the person drafting the Gospel verse has remembered that it is supposed to be sung,  but sometimes definitely not.  Sometimes a natural rhythm emerges if I read the words over; sometimes I find it difficult to create any rhythm at all, when it is obvious that if they had just left out a word, or used one with two syllables instead of four or one, it would have worked better.

Balancing the words and the Alleluia
Verse words need to balance
A sense of balance is essential in any culture at any time

Over time I have discovered that the number of bars is very important, even if I don’t know enough about music theory or maths to understand precisely why.  It (nearly always; there are exceptions to everything!) has to be an even number, and usually a multiple of four (though sometimes six is OK).  The Alleluia is usually four bars, so I think this is why, but there seems to be a deeply rooted sense of balance at work here.  If I go back and find a verse that doesn’t follow this rule, it’s usually because I’ve made a mistake, and I can hear where I ought to have held a note on for longer, for example.  The problem arises where the words are not conducive to a sense of balance!

Children playing on parallel bars
a well-developed sense of balance
One set of Alleluia words

Here are the words for a recent Sunday (10 OTB) as an example.

US :  Now the ruler of this world will be driven out, says the Lord;                 and when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.

UK :   Now the prince of this world is to be overthrown,                                             says the Lord.                                                                                                                         And when I am lifted up from the earth,                                                                            I shall draw all men to myself.

OZ  :  The prince of this world will now be cast out,                                               and when I am lifted up from the earth,                                                                           I will draw all to myself, says the Lord.

CAN :  Now the ruler of this world will be driven out,                                             and when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.

This is how they are set out, and the line division and the punctuation is supposed to be reflected in the musical setting.  Admittedly, this is one of the Lord’s more gnomic utterances, so it’s important not to rush it, because it is already slightly difficult to grasp on first hearing (and you always have to think about the people who don’t have the written text in front of them, probably the majority now and certainly so in the past).

choir with one large score
Not everyone can see the words
Factors that matter when setting words

Three of these start with a stressed syllable (‘now’), one with an unstressed one.  That’s very important, as it is the interface between the congregation singing and the cantor (or choir) picking up.  You don’t want the congregation to feel that they have done something wrong, because that destroys their confidence and then they won’t come in next time, so you have to be careful not to clip the Alleluia or leap in too fast; but an unstressed syllable cannot start a bar.

The OZ version here immediately suggests a 3/4 rhythm, but it gets weaker as it progresses.  The others don’t have much rhythm at all; and three of the versions have an interrupting ‘says the Lord’, which you have to decide what to do with.  The words offer a couple of pointers to what the tune might do (‘overthrown’, ‘lifted’, ‘draw’), but there’s not much in the way or suggestion.

I could give lots more examples, but every set of words has its points and difficulties.  St Paul is nearly always tricky, but so is St James. Old Testament (especially the Psalms, of course) and the words of Jesus himself tend to be more straightforward, but then you have to decide what to do with the says-the-Lords (nearly a bar on its own).   OZ often leaves that out, as CAN has done in the above example, which makes for a better flow, but can be slightly uncomfortable to sing in the first person!

Christ in glory ceiling mosaic
‘I’ am the light of the world?
The rhythm comes first

I tend to look for the rhythm first, then the tune, and then work out what Alleluia setting seems the  best fit.  When the words are as varied as this example, there tends to be variety in the Alleluias too.  I just checked back, and indeed, they are all different (Michael US, Step UK, Turner OZ and Clock CAN).  In addition, the UK Missal tends to offer an alternative set of words for the Alleluia every week, and  my US and CAN missals have a helpful page of possible alternative Alleluias (it’s quite hard to find, as it’s not listed anywhere in the Missal contents, so you just come across it by chance, and that is why I haven’t done a systematic set yet).

Getting the words across

The rhythm is crucial, because it helps to make sense of the words.  This is why I don’t find chant settings of the Alleluia verse helpful, because in my experience, if you have a text that is difficult, the cantor rests on the chant line rather than using it to bring out the sense; he or she just runs the line straight without using chant’s ability to frame the sinuous curves which support the meaning.  This is like when you listen to announcements on planes or at airports for example (or at the station in M Hulot’s Holiday),  when someone is reading out a translation without actually understanding it, sometimes without any intonation at all,  and it’s astonishingly hard to grasp what they are saying.  If you hear the Gospel being ceremonially intoned (sung mostly on one note), you will often hear the same effect.  The less important words, or even the whole inside of a sentence, is just sung in a sequence of equal quavers, and it is difficult to follow.  It’s certainly reverent; it can be beautiful; but it doen’t necessarily aid comprehension.

Making the tune relevant

Admittedly, there are still difficulties when you set the Gospel words as a tune.  Diction is crucial.  This is why my settings don’t often go very high or very low, because that makes enunciating the words (or spitting them out, as we singers say) more difficult, but at least the rhythm and the rests should help to make the sense clearer, and musically you can linger on words like forever or everlasting, to mirror the sense………and all this within four bars or so.   I enjoy trying different things here.  I put hammer blows in the music under ‘I will build my church’ and the different melody lines fall into step one after the other when the Lord talks about following, but most Alleluia verses tend to be abstract, and there’s very little space.

child being carried in a princess chair
Probably a Christmas Alleluia, as the two halves supporting the verse don’t exactly match

Back to the tiny piece of ivory then;  but if the Alleluia and the verse support each other and create a harmonious unit, then we are greeting the Gospel with ceremony and awareness.  We have stood up, we have taken some deep breaths, we are acting collectively.  We are ready for the Lord to speak to us.  To coin a phrase, from his mouth to our ear.

Jesus appearing to Job
Speak, Lord, your servant is listening

©Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.






Alleluia! Gospel Acclamations Part I

Musical MS with initial A
Here’s a beautiful sung Alleluia to start us off
Alleluias and Jane Austen

Whenever I start writing a new Alleluia, or Gospel Acclamation, I mentally send a curtsey in Jane Austen‘s direction.  This is because of her famous comments about her writing :  ‘the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour’.  Compared with setting a psalm, doing an Alleluia feels like creating a miniature, because it’s only got one verse and the Response is fixed.

The purpose of the Gospel Acclamation

Again like Jane Austen, I was surprised to find how much work there could be in setting something so small.  But it’s an important part of the liturgy.  The congregation has been sitting down, listening to the first Reading, and then responding by joining in with the Psalm (still sitting down, but probably a little straighter).  Then everyone settles down again for the second Reading.  After this we have to change the mood, to make everyone feel differently.  The Gospel is on its way, (even) more important than the other readings.  How can we make it stand out?  There are various ways that we use, some visual, some procedural.  We generate a sense of ceremony.  There is a little procession to the ambo.  There may be candles.   (There may even be incense, but I wish people would consider asthmatics a bit more here, and not overdo it.)  Only the priest or deacon may read it, so people not in normal clothes.  The book itself has been treated with respect, possibly even processed around again.  And  –  we have the Gospel Acclamation, the congregation’s greeting of the Gospel.  The people have to stand up, and they have something important to sing.

Plainchant MS with initial A
Here’s another one, probably hard to pick up quickly
Official line on the Alleluia

GIRM (General Instructions of the Roman Missal, the official rule book for liturgy)  is very clear on this : ‘An acclamation of this kind constitutes a rite or act in itself, by which the gathering of the faithful welcomes and greets the Lord who is about to speak to them in the Gospel and profess their faith by means of the chant. It is sung by everybody, standing, and is led by the choir or a cantor, being repeated as the case requires. The verse, on the other hand, is sung either by the choir or by a cantor.’ (GIRM 62)  I nearly added some italics to that till I realised I would have to italicise most of it.  It bears rereading.

Unusually, GIRM even states : ‘the Alleluia or the verse before the Gospel, if not sung, may be omitted’ (GIRM 63 c), so it’s essential that we sing it, to have it there at all.  This is because singing energises people, wakes them up, makes them feel involved.  They have to take a deep breath; they will naturally sit up or stand up.  I talked about this in my blog on Lent Gospel Acclamations.  It’s difficult to think of any other way of causing this to happen so quickly and neatly.  Singing is a fantastic liturgical tool.

Gap between theory and practice

This is why it’s really depressing when you hear the Alleluia sung dirgily, by only a few members of the congregation.  Following this you will often hear (some) people reading out the verse  – but not quite together; it’s difficult to get a mixed group to read something aloud at the same speed, and with pauses in the same places.  Even if it’s a regular element of Mass, some people find it hard (think of the Our Father or the ‘Lord graciously hear us’ from week to week).   When it particularly matters (e.g. choral speaking, not common nowadays), it’s often necessary to have a conductor (this seems to be the way they do it on broadcast religious services).   Otherwise, what you need is a tune.  In fact you need two : one for the Alleluia and one for the verse.


Bishop with Seuss snail
A Bishop greets an Alleluia (possibly related to a mediaeval Seuss)
One word, different tunes

Alleluia means ‘God is great’, ‘Praise the Lord’, ‘Hooray for God’, so it lends itself to a certain range of settings.  Sometimes it has exclamation marks; sometimes (Easter Vigil, for example), it has full stops (three in a row on that occasion, which certainly influenced the way I set it).  Because of this flexibility, it can reflect the Gospel verse accompanying it, so you can have ruminating ones, ebullient ones, jolly ones and thoughtful ones.  It’s good to have variety.  One Alleluia is not enough.  It would end up neutral and mechanical.

Plainchant MS with extended melisma
This one has a long and complicated tail, clearly linear
Why there are so many

Alleluias seem to breed very freely in captivity.  They proliferate also because you need different versions for different language areas, as the words of the verse are up to the local Bishops’ Conference.  So I started with both 3/4 and 4/4 versions, depending on the rhythm of the verse.  (The Alleluia and the verse need to have the same time signature, or there will be an awkward hiatus between them.)  By now there are rather a lot of them to choose from, and even the Canadians (who started later than the others) now have lots of different ones.  Here are links to the pages for US Alleluias, UK , OZ and CAN.  I did mean to write about the different names, but don’t have space here, so I’ll do that at a later date [I have now done so here ]. If you have a favourite Alleluia, because  the settings are modular, you can usually substitute it for another one (just check what key it’s in, and I can always send you a transposed one if necessary).

This is where the idea of the miniature as an complete thing in itself comes back in.  It has depth but not width, like a black hole.  I try to create the Gospel Acclamation as a circular unit that makes sense, with the Alleluia setting and the verse complementing each other.  The Alleluia is the top-and-tail, if you think in a linear shape, or the frame around the verse, if you think of it in the round (like a Della Robbia tondo, and the only bestiary equivalent of this I can come up with is a snail shell).  So it needs to make a satisfying shape by itself and also provide a good display area for the verse.  If the verse permits, it’s sometimes even possible to make the final Alleluia flow directly out of the verse (the Assumption Day Alleluia is a good example, as we the congregation become the chorus of angels in the final alleluia), but obviously the words have to be right for that to work.

Dragon with extra head on tail
Here is a linear Alleluia, with top and tail. The verse (the meat) is in the middle
Canon alleluias

The canon alleluias (Mayfield, Stuart etc), where the alleluia runs softly and continually behind the words of the verse, were a natural progression.  I thought of them like Taize chants or saying the Rosary, where people use repetition actually to free the mind to concentrate, but I think it can be tricky unless they know it well.  Some of the canon Alleluias are too complex for the congregation to keep singing while actually paying attention to the words of the Gospel verse, entirely my fault, so it’s always possible to use a canon Alleluia (like the Petropavlovsk) just as a standard top and tail.  Or you can  have only the choir sing it softly in the background.

Dinosaur in a snailshell
This is a beautiful but complex canon Alleluia, hence the expression
 Catching the Alleluia at first hearing

The Alleluia needs to set the mood : reflective, celebratory, peaceful, excited are all possible options, as I said before.  It mustn’t be too long, or difficult to get a grip on, because this is a bit of singing where everyone really should be joining in.  Lots of people feel that the hymns are optional (even I feel this with some hymns), and think that the Sanctus or the Gloria are just too long for them to get a grip.  I work hard at trying to persuade these people to join in, by using repetition carefully (middle section of the Gloria) or a question-and-answer musical format (Kyrie, Agnus Dei);  but the bits where I really need to hook people immediately so that they can sing are the psalm response and the Alleluia.

Snail shell with person emerging
Somebody singing a circular Alleluia

Above all, the Alleluia tune needs to be engaging and straightforward, because people may hear it only once before they sing it.  I think it’s worth having a group of possible Alleluias, rather than using the same one all the time, because you want the congregation to put its brain in gear and not operate entirely on autopilot.  You want them to be alert, but not panic, committed and interested rather than automatic and half-aware,  so changing the Alleluia can help.  Unfamiliarity can be useful, because it wakes people up and make them pay attention.

More unfamiliarity : the words of the verse

The Alleluia verse changes (almost) every week.  Some of the words chosen as Alleluia verses can be difficult to grasp on a first reading (especially if they are by St Paul), but putting them to music imposes a rhythm which can make them easier to grasp (think about when you hear someone reading the second reading and putting the pauses in intelligently : it makes it much easier to follow the argument).   The cantor or the choir will have had to think about pauses and phrasing, even if they are just working out where to take a breath.  The sense emerges more clearly.  I will tap in to a musical reference here if one occurs to me and I think it will help , quoting a snatch of Sheep may safely graze in an Alleluia verse about sheep, for example, or a bar or two of Ein feste Burg if the verse is about strength and fortresses.  Most people won’t notice, but a lot of musical suggestion is subliminal (and anyway I love Bach).

Having your own Alleluia collection

Ideally, you end up with a parish repertoire of alleluia tunes  that most people recognise as more or less familiar, so that visitors and new people feel they can join in experimentally without worrying about being too exposed.  Giving a good lead is crucial; singing the first Alleluia is as important as singing the first psalm response, and for exactly the same reason.  The person singing it first needs to be clear (we often don’t put any accompaniment in until the second time around).  This is why the descant on the Christmas Alleluia only appears at the end.  It’s very important for people to know exactly what it is you want them to sing.  Then they can join in.

Snail with helper
Volmar the Vebmaster checking a new Alleluia to make sure it has all its links

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.