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!


Lent Gospel Acclamations, a User’s Guide

Putting the Alleluia on hold (for a little while)…..

From this Wednesday, February 14th, you won’t hear the word Alleluia in church for the next six weeks or so. That is because it is the beginning of Lent (although there may also be a few people celebrating February 14th for other reasons), and during Lent all the Alleluias, like the Gloria, are removed from the liturgy.

A beautiful place to keep the Alleluias during Lent
…and giving the job to the Lent Gospel Acclamation

Instead we have the Lent Gospel Acclamation, which has the exact same role. It heralds the Gospel. We sing (or say, but singing’s better) it before the (relevant) Gospel verse, and repeat it afterwards; then, completely focussed and wideawake (because of the injection of new oxygen caused by singing), we listen to the Gospel.  In some parishes, they repeat the Acclamation again after the Gospel, which means the congregation is singing it at least three times.

Lots of options

There are different forms of words for the Lent Gospel Acclamation, and they also differ in each country-group, so we end up with lots of them.  I’m not sure why there is so much variation, as they all replace the simple word ‘Alleluia’, and no-one seems to feel a need to vary that from week to week, but I just work with what I’m given.

Hunting the Bonnacore (mythical beast)
Volmar and I attempting to subdue the Lent Gospel Acclamation

We’ve now been doing this for a few years, and I have to admit that my heart and that of Volmar the Vebmaster both sink when we realise it’s Lent Gospel Acclamation time again.  This is because they are tricksy little things and it’s hard to get a good grip on them.  Somehow they always manage to get in behind you and bite you on the bottom, however hard you try to keep them in order.  This year, for example, I was reasonably sanguine about them after putting a lot of work and organisation in over the last two years.  Ash Wednesday looked all right…..and then my nice neat system fell at the first hurdle as I had to write a third one for Canada for First Sunday of Lent Year B, because the Missal used a different one.

Sheep tightly jammed into sheepfold
How many different Acclamations?
Lots and lots of options

The problem arises because each country-group Missal can choose any of the optional Lent Gospel Acclamations to go with any set Gospel verse, which offers a dizzying number of possibilities.  Most parishes don’t actually want to have a new Acclamation every week as well as the new Gospel verse.  So what I have done is take a default setting for every week, choosing the one that is used most often in the Lectionary, so that you can actually sing the same Acclamation every week if you want to;  and where the Acclamation in the Missal is one of the alternatives, I’ve set that as well (so you can stick with the words exactly as in the Missal if you prefer).  For all the country-groups except  the Canadians, the default setting is the first standard Lent Gospel Acclamation, but for Canada it is the fifth on the list.

Nun reading at lectern
Hooray for women cantors even if they can’t read the Gospel
The problems of labelling

I started out by giving them letters instead of numbers, but that turned out too confusing.  We have numbered them according to the order in the Missal, but it’s still not foolproof as the Sundays of Lent are themselves numbered, and the Years are designated by different letters, so both obvious markers could cause confusion.  I thought about Roman numerals, lower-case letters and different alphabets, but they all have drawbacks.  Various useful typographical marks aren’t accepted as elements in filenames by the computer.  So the form we settled on is that the first number in any name is the marker for the top-and-tail, and later numbers refer to the Sunday of Lent. Thus Lent Gospel Acclamation 1 (US) 1 Lent A, for example.

America, Canada and Australia/New Zealand all use the same set of possible Lent Gospel Acclamations, but OZ and CAN do not use Nos. 3 and 6 in their Missals.  I thought about renumbering in consequence, but decided against it. The UK and Ireland have their own set.

In addition, the Saints’ days which fall in Lent have to use Lent Gospel Acclamations instead of Alleluias.  Since March is a busy month (St David, St Patrick and St Joseph among others), this is a whole further group.

Further possible complications

Sometimes I have to transpose the Acclamation down a tone, because the Gospel verse would otherwise feel uncomfortable for the Cantor;  I thought about doing a separate list of these as well, but decided it probably wasn’t worth it.  Most Acclamations are in G or F, and they are all 4/4;  this is to keep things as modular as possible, so if your congregation particularly likes one Acclamation, it’s easy to reuse it, even if it isn’t the one set in the Missal.  And I can easily transpose anything for you if you e-mail me (

How does it work in practice?

When we post the music for the appropriate Sunday, this means that every week there is a setting of the Lent Gospel Acclamation with that week’s Gospel verse, and often two, because there is the default setting (usually Lent Gospel Acclamation 1) as well as whatever is written in the Missal.  It’s not as complicated on the ground as it sounds when you try to explain it.   On some Lent Sundays,  we have the same Gospel verse as a different Year, but a different top-and-tail, so it’s possible to end up with three options, but usually it’s only two; and of course, you only need one for any given Mass.   We are trying to keep this simple (I realise it may not sound like that!), and it’s easier in practice than it sounds.

Making them work

Like Alleluias, these are musical miniatures, but they do have a function, and they have to work.  To be succesful, they must be clear, attract attention, encourage participation, stop people being distracted and give the words their full weight.  This is why everyone sings the top-and-tail, even if only the cantor sings the verse.  That’s quite a lot of work for four bars of music.

Teacher reading to class
Paying attention and enjoying it?

The Acclamations need to be a call, but not jubilant like the Alleluia, more of a formal introduction.  The format for both Alleluias and Lent Gospel Acclamations  reminds me of the old advice about speaking to a group : you need to tell people what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.  It is a deliberate framing device.  Some of the words are trickier than others; I have tried to be ceremonial without being musically pompous.  They don’t need to be slow, just comfortable talking speed for the verse.  Over the course of Lent, the Gospel verses start spare and become slightly more elaborate; I have tried to follow the same development.

Always trying to catch up

As evidence of the tricksiness of the Lent Gospel Acclamation, I have to mention that only this year did I discover that there are even two more available for the US and CAN Lectionaries.  These two don’t get set in the Missal for the Lent Sundays, so I don’t actually need them for this year; but in the interests of completeness, and giving you the full set of options, I will try to set them before next Lent season……and then I will find that there is still more to do, before I have got all the Lent Gospel Acclamations sorted out and musicked.  I wish you a happy, holy and musical Lent.

Mini-dragons attacking people
Lent Gospel Acclamations refusing to lie down

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