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.

Lent Gospel Acclamations, a User’s Guide

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

From this Wednesday, 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,  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.  Volmar is deeply attached to Roman numerals (it’s all those occurrences of the letter ‘V’), so he uses it in his lists, but I get to put the titles on the music pages. 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 successful, 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 maybe studying Lent Gospel Acclamations?
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  [and here they are], 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 like Lent Gospel Acclamations
Lent Gospel Acclamations refusing to lie down

© 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.