Lent Gospel Acclamations : an update

When you can’t sing Alleluia

With Lent come the Lent Gospel Acclamations, the replacement for the usual Gospel Acclamation.  For the rest of the year the Gospel Acclamation has only one word (Alleluia, but I admit that it is repeated) and lots of tunes; the Lent Gospel Acclamation has several different forms of words,  each of which has only one tune (in my settings anyway, although the verses are obviously all different, because they are different words; – but see below).

How many different Acclamations?

Each country-group has its own set of possible Lent Gospel Acclamations, so we have lots of them to deal with, and this is why it can sound confusing.  But most of you only need to worry about one country’s-worth of them.  I wrote about them exhaustively and extensively last year, and I still agree with everything I said then, but there was a bit of unfinished business.

Two new kids on the block

Last year I discovered that there were two more that I hadn’t set,  only too late to set them; but luckily this year, I noticed in time.  So here are two new Acclamations for the US and Canada this year.  As I explained in my previous blog on Lent Gospel Acclamations, they are tricksy things,

Hunting the Bonnacon, a mythical beast
Volmar and I struggling to get to grips with the Lent Gospel Acclamation

so I wasn’t surprised to find I’d nearly missed them again.  The musical undergrowth is lush at this time of year, and they find it easy to lurk undetected.  In my defence, I should add that these two new ones were over a page turn, are not actually used in any of the week-by-week Mass settings, are only for the US and Canada, and are additions to a stable of six variants already.  I’m not sure whether any congregation actually sings all the different LGAs.  However, just in case there is anyone out there who would like to, I wanted to give you the full set.  So I have set the last two.  And there are versions in the keys of both F and G, just in case.

tapestry alphabet hanging
you always need the full set…just in case
When they might be useful

The words are: Marvel(l)ous and great are your works, O Lord! (LGA 7) and Salvation, glory, and power to the Lord Jesus Christ! (LGA  8).  They are very much in the same vein as the other Lent Gospel Acclamations, and as I said, they don’t get offered as standard top-and-tail in any of the Lent Sundays.  But the Lent Acclamations are modular (like the Alleluias, mostly), so you can slot them in or out depending on whether they fit the sense better, or resonate with one of the readings, or your congregation just likes them (if only we regularly got that sort of feedback…..).  Bear in mind that LGA 8 is the only Acclamation that starts on an unstressed syllable, so this will affect coming in in the first place as well as picking it up again after the Gospel verse.  The congregation might appreciate a wave from you even more than usual.  Think of it like a Response that starts with ‘The’.

People having a great time singing Lent Gospel Acclamations
For special occasions

I’ve used them with a couple of standard Sundays (3rd and 4th  Sundays for example) just to show how they work, but the words feel a bit more triumphant than some of the other Acclamations, so I thought they might come in useful for the feasts which (can) occur in Lent, like St Joseph on March 19th and the Annunciation  (those are sound-links to the CAN versions), which gets moved if it falls in Holy Week, but not if it’s earlier in Lent.  So you will also find them there.  I think it’s quite a good idea to have something different for the feasts, so long as you have enough people to sing it back to you on what will be a weekday Mass. And they are really easy to pick up and sing, so even if you don’t use them very often, they can come in as an occasional variant, to keep everyone interested.  Acclamations shouldn’t be entirely routine, that’s why they have an exclamation mark after them.

Lent Gospel Acclamations and following a thread

It is interesting to compare what you might call the narrative arc of the Lent Gospel Acclamations for any given year in the three cycles.  For the first two weeks of Lent, they are the same across Years A, B and C.  The first one is Jesus’ answer to the devil in the desert, when he is offered bread while he is fasting : No one lives on bread alone but on the word of God.  This is a shoo-in for the First Sunday of Lent, helping us to focus our minds on the season.  The Second Sunday of Lent has as its Gospel the event of the Transfiguration in the various accounts (Year A Matthew, Year B Mark, Year C Luke, John does not retell the story), and the Gospel verse is taken from that: From the shining cloud the Father’s voice is heard :  This is my son, listen to him.

Transfiguration with helpful sign language captions
Many threads in a pattern

From the third week of Lent it gets more complicated.  This is partly because it is possible to use the Year A readings regardless of the canonical year, as the Scrutinies for those preparing for Baptism at the Vigil are celebrated in the next three Sundays.  Year A has the encounter of Jesus with the woman at the well, with all the discussion about living water, so it is easy to see why this might be regarded as especially relevant, and the Gospel Acclamation here is the woman’s acceptance  : Lord, you are truly the Saviour of the world.  From this Third Sunday, however, the LGAs have different narrative arcs, so I want to look at them separately year by year.

a different sort of narrative ark, more like a space ship
Week by week, year by year

In Year A, the week after the living water, we have ‘I am the light of the world’ and then ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ in Week 5, so the tone is always positive,  in contrast to some of the other readings.  In Year B, there is more emphasis on sacrifice, with both the third and fourth week using John 3.16 (God so loved the world) as the Acclamation with an optional variant in the UK Lectionary of ‘I am the resurrection’.   It’s quite unusual to repeat a Gospel Acclamation from week to week, though it does happen occasionally; and it means the bishops really want us to think about this one.  I’ve done a couple of versions so that (the next time  we are singing Year B ) you can vary it or keep it identical if you wish so as not to be a distraction.

another gorgeous ark, signifying distraction
This year (Year C)

Year C, our current year, has an elegant trajectory, which is why I started thinking about this in the first place.  All the Gospels are from Luke, except for Fifth Sunday, and his account is known as ‘the Gospel of Mercy’.  What is the tone of the Acclamation verses for Lent in Year C, Luke’s year?  After the first two Sundays, which are the same across all three years, we have ‘Repent, says the Lord, the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ and the parable of the fig tree for Third Sunday.  The following week, we have the story of the prodigal son, and the Acclamation verse is taken from the Gospel : ‘I will arise and go to my father’.   In the fifth week we have John’s story of the woman taken in adultery (only found in John’s Gospel), and the Acclamation is a beautiful, incredibly appropriate verse from Joel :’Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, for I am gracious and merciful’ (there’s a UK possible alternative ‘Seek good and not evil’, but I would choose the Joel verse myself).  Each week we have a different angle on repentance leading to loving forgiveness and reconciliation.

Lovely dynamic prodigal son’s return
Every word counts

So even in this tiny element of the Mass, the words of the Lent Gospel Acclamation develop the themes and messages of the readings week by week.  The Acclamations introduce the Gospel and sometimes literally come out of it, but they are certainly meant to make us go more deeply into it.  The top-and-tail words that we all sing are to wake us up, punctuate the movement of the liturgy and make us pay attention to the Gospel itself; but it’s also worth noting exactly what the verse says.  I try not to make the music move too fast nor go too high in the Gospel verses, because it’s essential that the cantor gets the words across at their first (and only) hearing .   Try and make them clear.  And if you’re part of the main congregation, think of the old way we used to be taught how to cross the road.  The slogan then was : Stop – look – listen.  Now at Mass, we could rephrase it as : Stand – sing – listen.  The words are worth it.

Snail shell with person emerging
a happy cantor who’s being listened to

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2019. 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.

The verse words : Gospel Acclamations Part 2

The Alleluia comes first, but the words are the message

Everyone refers to the Gospel Acclamation as ‘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.