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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[You can also read this in Spanish]
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