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