The Gentle Guide to my Christmas music

A great and mighty wonder….every year
crib scene in illuminated capital
Sing choirs of angels….and everyone else too

Christmas is another all-nighter for many choirs, like Easter but a slightly different shape.  Instead of the enormous Easter Vigil followed by a day Mass on the Sunday, at Christmas we have a sequence of four (shorter) Masses spread through the night and into the next day. Many, possibly even most, parishes kickstart the celebrations at Christmas with half an hour of carols before Midnight Mass (which doesn’t have to be at midnight any more). So that’s a lot of singing, at a time of year when many people already have sore throats and churches are cold.

Advent and the run-up to Christmas
Female charioteer with four in hand
Me keeping the Advent Alleluias together; the black horse is actually dark pink for Gaudete Sunday

By the time you get to Christmas, you’ve already sung four weeks’ worth of Advent music.  Advent is much shorter than Lent, and the emphasis is on positive waiting and anticipation rather than moving slowly forward through anticipation and dread to new hope, so it feels completely different, and I take my cue from traditional Christmas music to get the mood right.  Even people who don’t sing normally will sing carols, so simple tuneful music is what I am trying to offer, hoping to persuade them to carry on singing once they have started with a carol verse or two….

Christmas music rooted in carols
Volmar having a vord with a recalcitrant Advent Alleluia

A lot of carols (and folk music in general) are in 3/4, and it’s easy to use this time signature to encourage forward movement, so the Advent Alleluia is in 3/4 rather than the more usual 4/4. It’s got some bounce in the rhythm, but the tune is simple, and in the middle of where most people’s voices are comfortable.   This is important, and I do try to think about where people’s voices naturally fall, mainly so that they can’t use that as a cop-out for not singing.

Deck the church with Christmas Alleluias

As soon as we move into the Christmas music, we have the Christmas Alleluia instead of the Advent one.  If you haven’t tried it with the descant, please do, because it’s really easy, but it sounds full of joy and excitement.  People have been singing the Advent Alleluias for four weeks, so they will sit up and pay attention when you give them a new one to sing.  The Christmas Alleluia is meant to sound like a peal of bells, like the choruses in Angels we have heard on high and Ding dong merrily.

Christmas, -mas, -mas, -mas
1 : the Vigil Mass

There are four Masses available for singing on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  The first is in the evening of Christmas Eve.  It is often regarded as especially for children (and people who don’t want to be out too late in the cold).  Our parish uses it as the Christingle Mass.  It’s an interesting set of music to arrange, because it needs to be jubilant and celebratory while not jumping the gun, as Jesus isn’t born yet.  So that knocks out nearly all carols, which should wait until the next day, as there’s no procession to the crib or similar.  But by now the anticipation is at fever-pitch, we all know what’s going to happen, and the excitement catches in your throat, just like when labour starts and you’re thinking that you are finally going to meet this small person that no-one has been able to hold yet except you.

The psalm for the Vigil (88/89) is joyful but still measured, talking about the history that has led up to this point and the covenant which is being fulfilled.  It almost feels like checking the paperwork at the hospital.  It’s still a question of sorting things out before the baby arrives, making sure everything is ready.   The Alleluia keeps the emphasis of this Vigil Mass clear, putting the stress on its first word  ‘Tomorrow…’, but the excitement should be fizzing and the joy is only a step away.

I do not know why the Canadians have alternative Responses for all the Christmas psalms, but I think it must be because they are in the middle of a revision of their Lectionary, so I’ve just set them, and the choices are up to you.

2 : Midnight Mass

Midnight Mass itself is a marathon, starting (usually) with half an hour of carols.  Some of our most beloved carols are old, some are difficult to sing, several are pitched to make it easier to play the accompaniment than to reach the top notes, and many members of the choir may have colds.  I have tried not to give you too many high notes to worry about, because descants and Hark the herald take quite a toll on the soprano line.  But we need to express joy here, and the music is trying to make this easy to do.  The psalms helpfully equate joy with singing, so we have a head start.

mediaeval animals playing pump organ
If the people don’t sing, even the animals will have to take to the orgen

The Midnight Mass psalm has a Response drawn from elsewhere in the Bible, which doesn’t always work, but does here, as it’s our old friend Psalm 95/96, but with a very careful selction of verses.  The psalm starts by encouraging everyone to sing, and then extends the list of the everyone to include the sea, the land and even the trees to shout for joy because – and then the Response explains the reason : Today a saviour has been born to us; he is Christ the Lord.

Angel bring Christmas message to shepherds
Good news is even better when you sing it

One of the Canadian Responses fits exactly to the tune of the chorus in Adeste fideles, so I had to write another psalm setting so that you could have a 4/4 Response.  So there you have two quite different options, because the other version of the words is irresistibly 3/4 and like other carols.  Adeste is originally a Latin hymn, rather than a carol, so a bit more staid and less skippy, but the other versions should all rollick along.  This is great news, this is exciting!

To add to the fun, the strophes are different lengths, which means I can’t compress the UK and the OZ versions, so you have lots of pages.  At least there are usually lots of people around in the choir loft on Christmas night, so you should be able to find someone to turn over for you if you are playing the organ.  The US and CAN versions have been slightly regularised, so there are compacts of those, but I can’t fit the last Response on to the compact sheets, so make sure you check for Recorder trills or twiddles on the non-compact form for the last verse, because it’s a shame to leave them out.

3 :  Mass at Dawn

This Mass always seems slightly like a poor relation.  It’s for the people who couldn’t come to the previous Masses and who can’t be there for the later morning one (after the stockings and breakfast and putting the turkey on).  It’s a shorter psalm, the next one in the Psalter, as it happens (96/97), and the readings are short too, because this Mass is for the noble souls who have to be on duty in hospitals or fire stations or are helping other people at Christmas.   I don’t want you to miss out on the joy and the excitement, and I think this is a great psalm even if it only has two verses.   But the singers in the choir loft may be feeling a bit weary, so there’s no pyrotechnics and it doesn’t go very high; just a simple bouncy tune reminiscent of a Christmas carol.

Depending on your translation, you have either ‘islands’ or ‘coastlands’ rejoicing in this psalm.  I like to think of the islands picking up their frothy petticoats and twirling away to the dance in the music in honour of the event.

4 :  Mass during the Day

And here’s the last Mass of the day, after which choirs and celebrants are all off-duty and there’s only little things like getting the Christmas dinner to worry about.  This Mass tends to have the most relaxed atmosphere, because the baby has been born and the celebrations have already started.  We move on to the next psalm in the Psalter (97/98), which again tells us to sing and ring out our joy.

It’s interesting to compare this psalm with the one at Midnight Mass.  They are both invitations to sing to the Lord, but the tense has shifted in the day psalm.  Now we are specifically singing about what the Lord has (just) done.  It’s all solid immediate past tenses: he has done wondrous deeds, he has won victory, he has made known his salvation, he has revealed his justice, he has remembered his kindness and his faithfulness, and all the ends of the earth have seen it.  Everything has been sorted out.   This psalm is pure celebration, and keeps repeating its imperatives : in four verses, we are told to sing five times, and even encouraged to take up specific instruments, melodious but loud.  We need brass, for ‘trumpets and the sound of the horn’ are demanded, and quite right too.  Enjoy the moment.  There’s (another) wonderful U.A.Fanthorpe poem  BC:AD  about this exact moment.

Refreshing the familiar

All the psalms for Christmas are familiar ones, which recur throughout the year, because they are calls to praise.  The Response and the Alleluia verses are often the only part that is specifically Christmassy.  This is good because it helps us to remember that we are meant to be singing these joyful words all year round, but they should have a fresh immediacy at the Christmas masses.  It’s happening right now, this event which causes us to rejoice for all the rest of the year, this event which makes our hearts dance as we sing the Christmas music.  Remember that carols were dances as well as songs, and sing them that way.  Merry Christmas.

mediaeval dancers in a line
Christmas dancing, about 1300 AD. Note the little hop : that’s my counter-rhythm!

© 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

[You can also read this in Spanish]

© 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.

%d bloggers like this: