Feb 15, 2001

Rethinking the Responsorial Gloria

Online Edition – Vol. VI, No. 10 – February 2001

Rethinking the Responsorial Gloria

"When I see a
hymn that says ‘Refrain’, I usually do …" Austin C. Lovelace

In the course of working with
Catholic liturgical music and dealing with all of its problems,
one must invariably encounter that lamentable practice of singing

Gloria in excelsis

with a refrain. Its use in the
Catholic Church is now so widespread that one hardly thinks twice
when singing a responsorial


, and the vast majority
of settings being composed today are of this form. Its predominance
extends to other languages as well; a quick look at the Spanish

Flor y canto

, 1989 edition, reveals twelve settings
of the


, all of them responsorial.1

The acceptance of this practice
is a curious phenomenon, as it is thoroughly foreign to the liturgical
history of this hymn. The


has existed, in one form or another, since before the 6th century, when it was used exclusively in papal Masses. The Latin text arrived at its current form in the 9th century, over a thousand years ago.2 Its use by clergy of lower rank was strictly regulated for specific occasions, until its universal use was granted in the late 11th century.3 The modern


provides nineteen
chant settings of the


of "varying antiquity".4 None of these is responsorial, even as the practice of alternating verses and antiphons comes directly out of the chant tradition.

Western art music, of course,
has a rich history of setting the Mass Ordinary. But anyone familiar
with the Renaissance polyphony of Palestrina, the orchestral
Masses of Mozart and Haydn, or the individual settings of the


by Vivaldi and Poulenc knows that none of these
composers, in his infinite wisdom, chose to set the text with
a refrain.

What is more, the responsorial


is a phenomenon unique to contemporary Roman Catholic
practice. The

Hymnal 1982

of the Episcopal Church, our
closest liturgical brethren, contains eighteen settings of the


in its Service Music section (including the 1985 appendix), both in the Rite I English and in the Rite II version. None of these settings is responsorial.5 In a more liturgically distant denomination, the

Lutheran Book
of Worship

has only three settings; again, none of these is responsorial.6

The Presbyterian Hymnal

two settings of the


, neither of which is responsorial.7 The idea is clearly alien to virtually all Protestant denominations who use the


in their liturgies. It does not seem
to have occurred to anyone outside the Catholic Church that the


can be set as a verse-and-refrain composition.

Considering more than fifteen
centuries of liturgical tradition both inside and outside the
Catholic Church, the responsorial


is nothing short
of revolutionary! This kind of novelty and exclusivity warrants
serious consideration of its roots, and like so many other problems
with Catholic music today, its origins can be traced to the implementation
of the liturgical renewal following the Second Vatican Council.
The verse-and-refrain form is the trademark of folk music, that
counter-cultural idiom that has dominated Catholic music in the
United States for the last thirty years. As a matter of fact,
"sacro-pop" hymnody has been quite incapable of producing
anything beyond the verse-and-refrain form.

This limitation, combined with
the pervasiveness of the folk style, has resulted in the prevalence
of the responsorial


over the "through-composed"
form. A multitude of objections may legitimately be leveled against
the rise of the folk style in Catholic music, but ultimately
they are independent of the specific problems associated with
the responsorial


. Good reasons exist to reject
it as a liturgical, musical, and semantic disaster.

The responsorial


is blatantly contrary to the ideal of active participation (at
least, as it is commonly understood), which is ironic since the
proponents of active participation and modern liturgical composers
are often in the same camp.

Consider the typical scenario
in the Mass: the musicians at the front of the church, whose
function is often described as "leading the congregation
in song", begin to sing the refrain. In its repetition,
various gestures are employed to get the congregation to join
in. Even if the congregation does join in, it is immediately
left by the side of the road while the cantor alone declaims
the rest of the text.

Almost universally, "missalettes"
contain music for the refrain only; the congregation is repeatedly
denied the opportunity to sing the rest of the


This complicates the relationship between the cantor and congregation,
giving the impression that the congregation is being sung to,
rather than being led in song. The perception of the cantor as
a performer is, of course, entirely logical; after all, the cantor
is usually at the front of the church with a microphone and does
most of the singing. This problem is only magnified by having
the cantor sing text that is off-limits to everyone else, and
it contributes to the problem of the passive congregation, who
does not wish to interrupt the performance. In short, it is bad

If active participation is a
goal of the post-Vatican II liturgy, there can be no justification
for junking the through-composed


and replacing
it with responsorial settings. If the congregation can sing the
entire text, then it should be allowed to do so. But the implication
from all the refrain-only settings seems to be that the congregation
cannot do this, and that liturgical composers do not trust the
ability of the congregation to learn an entire



The text assigned to the congregation usually consists only of the first complete sentence of the hymn: "Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth". Sometimes it is even less than that. Christopher Walker’s well-known "Celtic Mass" (which, incidentally, offers a through-composed setting) has only the first half of this sentence as a refrain.8 This tells the congregation that musicians do not think they can learn anything more than a few words. But this is, after all, the same congregation that is supposed to remember the Nicene Creed, all the other parts of the Mass, a handful of hymns, and negotiate a new Psalm response every week. Is singing the entire


really the straw to break
the camel’s back?

Another major problem with the


is its tendency to foster radical
alterations of the liturgical text, in violation of

Sacrosanctum Concilium

, which states that no one may "add, remove, or change" anything in the liturgy.9 Further alteration of the


is particularly dangerous, as English-speaking countries have
already been given a remarkably inept translation by ICEL [International
Commission on English in the Liturgy] to work with. Its opening
sentence alone obscures the hymn’s biblical origins (Luke 2:14).

Latin liturgical text

Gloria in excelsis Deo
Et in terra pax hominibus bonæ voluntatis.

Douay-Rheims translation

Glory to God in the highest;
and on earth peace to men of good will.

ICEL translation

Glory to God in the highest,
and peace to his people on earth.

The ICEL translation is oversimplified and omits an important point; there is a prerequisite of bonæ voluntatis, or eudokias in Greek, for the reception of this peace.10 But eudokias "is not the good will of men but the good will of God, God’s pleasure, God’s favor and grace".11 In other words, men "partake of this peace not because of a turn of fortune’s wheel, but because of God’s free, merciful decree".12 This is a theologically complex statement, and "peace to his people on earth" fails to convey any of this.

Apparently, liturgical composers have seen a need to further alter an already diluted text. This first sentence of the Gloria, typically used as the refrain, often undergoes additional transformation at the hands of composers, and some of the results are quite startling. The "God, here among us Mass" of Christopher Willcock, SJ, alters the refrain to "Glory to you, Lord our God, now and until the end of time."13 This begs for an "Amen", sounding more like a doxology at the end of a prayer than the beginning of a hymn. Carey Landry’s Young People’s Mass of 1979 (which contains a responsorial Sanctus and takes a hacksaw to Eucharistic Prayer II) has the following refrain: "Glory be to the Father; glory be to the Son; Glory be to the Spirit, All glory to our God"!14 It seems that the composer has confused the Gloria in excelsis with the Gloria Patri. With these bizarre alterations, the original meaning of the Biblical text has been completely lost.

Responsorial Gloria settings in Spanish are among the offenders as well. The official Spanish text is "Gloria a Dios en el cielo, y en la tierra paz a los hombres que ama el Señor". This translation more faithfully conveys the original meaning, although it isn’t exactly Cervantes. But in various Spanish settings, the word "Dios" gets replaced with virtually every other synonym in existence, yielding "Gloria al Señor", "Gloria a Ti", "Gloria a nuestro Dios", or "Gloria a mi Dios".

Returning to the ICEL translation, one discovers that after the first sentence, things only get worse. The various types of laudation that follow are severely truncated, some of the majestic titles given to Jesus are altered, and the penitential petitions beginning at "Qui tollis" undergo a kind of mix-and-match operation to emerge as something entirely different.

Additional modification of this curious translation is necessary to make the Gloria fit the straitjacket of the verse-and-refrain setting. Unfortunately, the Gloria is a prose poem, and any attempt to divide the rest of the text into equal parts and set it metrically to the same music is nearly impossible. (Marty Haugen’s Mass of Creation is a notable exception, providing new music for each "verse".15) That composers are willing to attempt it is a testament to their dedication, perhaps. Various solutions have been devised for this, always involving further alteration of the official liturgical text.

Carey Landry’s Young People’s Mass, with its confusing refrain, invites further analysis. The remainder of the text, if one can honestly say that the opening sentence has already been set, is divided into three verses. The first verse is little more than a paraphrase of the laudatory section of the hymn, and it includes some redundant repetition:

We praise you, we bless you, we give you thanks.

We praise you for your glory.
We praise you, we bless you, we worship you,
O Lord, our God.

The praise is clear enough. But what the verse lacks are the majestic titles for God found in the original. The emphasis in this verse is exclusively on the actions of the faithful, possibly a symptom of man-centered liturgical theology.

In the second verse, the petition for mercy is excised:

Lord Jesus Christ,
only Son of God!
You are one with the Father.
Receive our prayer.

Gone are the references to Jesus as the "Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world". Indeed, there is no mention of sin at all, which completely neutralizes the penitential tone of this section of the Gloria. In fairness to the composer, this setting was written for use with a young congregation, as the title of this Mass implies. But again, the composer is assuming a complete lack of intelligence on the part of the congregation. Do children really need a dumbed-down version of the Gloria? Surely there is nothing in the original text that is objectionable or inappropriate for children.16

Musically speaking, this setting is rife with problems. The first verse, for example, has thirty-one syllables, whereas the second has only twenty, over a third fewer. This is quite inexplicable, as the whole point of altering the text is to make it fit into metrical verses. But Landry’s verses are so full of tied notes, rests in the text, small notes for extra syllables, and so on that one wonders why the composer decided on such an unyielding version of the Gloria in the first place. What is more, the way in which the text has been altered in its focus on man and deliberate disregard for sin displays far too many influences of unorthodox theology to be coincidental. Rather, the composer seems to have a non-musical agenda.

Another textually altered setting is Mike Anderson’s "charismatic" Gloria of 1983. Aesthetic considerations aside — the refrain could easily be a rejected Madonna tune from the mid-80s — the refrain is in Latin, to this author’s utter bewilderment. However, it only contains the words "Gloria in excelsis Deo", and the missing half of this sentence is only tangentially referred to in the first verse. The use of Latin also seems to be at odds with the enthusiastic clapping notated in the refrain, resulting in an unsuccessful marriage of "contemporary" elements with the traditional "old" language. The penitential mini-litany is carelessly dissected at the end of the second verse: "You take away our sins, O Lord, have mercy on us all".

Considering that this is a petition for God’s mercy, the music is curiously banal at this point. But what is more, the logical continuation of this is interrupted by the refrain and only resumed in the third verse, creating a discontinuity in the flow of the text. The fourth and final verse seems to be entirely unrelated with the established text, and an invention of the composer:

Glory, Father and Son,

Glory, Holy Spirit,
to you we raise our hands up high,
we glorify your name.

For some reason, the first half of this verse is lacking in verbs and articles. This level of syntax is unworthy of even the Teletubbies, much less the Holy Mass.17

At the end of the Gloria, the "Amen" is a very important event. The text covers so much ground so quickly, including the angelic address, declarations of God’s majesty, exploration of Jesus’ sacrificial role, and even a penitential litany, that it desperately requires some sort of closure. The word "Amen" provides this. In many responsorial settings of the Gloria, the "Amen" is omitted, as in the settings of Landry18 and Anderson.19 In the settings that do include it, the formula of responsorial composition demands that the refrain be repeated at the end, rendering the finality of the "Amen" meaningless.

A more innovative solution to the problem of setting the text in verses can be seen in Peter Jones’s Glory to God of 1982. It does not involve actual alteration of the liturgical text, but it does re-organize the text in an unbelievably confusing and thoroughly unnecessary manner. (It also has the extraordinary tempo marking of "Slow but jolly".) Astonishingly, the score identifies four refrains, although only the first is really used as such; refrains 2, 3, and 4 are really just interjections from the congregation. Why the congregation would be thought capable of jumping in mid-stream (on off-beats!) to make some of these proclamations, but incapable of singing the entire Gloria, is a mystery known only to the composer.20

But this setting raises many questions beyond issues of practicality. Considering only how the text is arranged, one discovers that in this setting with four "refrains", a hymn of praise to God is transformed into a dialogue among the faithful. (This seems to be another example of anthropocentric theological influence.) The text of the Gloria is clearly addressed to God, so it is illogical and confusing that the faithful should be singing to each other. The imperative clauses of the penitential section are assigned to the congregation in refrains 3 and 4, with the result that the congregation appears to be praying to the cantor.

What possible musical or liturgical purpose could this serve? In the highly unlikely event that a church would be able to execute this Gloria in accordance with the composer’s directions the cantor usually ends up performing the whole piece a very eerie dynamic would emerge between the cantor and congregation, going far beyond the performer versus audience situation. The exact role of the cantor here, as recipient of the congregation’s petitions, is unclear and disturbing. It is possible that the composer has not considered the ramifications of his creation, but seen in this light, Glory to God becomes theologically suspicious, if not downright sinister.

Some of these textual modifications are so radical that barely a ghost of the original text remains. One wonders how composers can get away with calling these compositions settings of the Gloria, or whether they have any respect for the sanctity of liturgical text. (Carey Landry certainly didn’t.21) Surely there can be no objection to freely altering the text of the Gloria and presenting it as an independent hymn, but composers become irresponsible and dishonest both liturgically and musically by masquerading their free compositions as legitimate settings of the Mass Ordinary.

All of the settings examined above differ dramatically from one another in both content and setting. What all of them share in common, however, is tearing the unity and flow of the Gloria to shreds.

The Gloria took three centuries to arrive at its final form, and this only includes its years of existence in Latin. Surely the writers of antiquity knew what they were doing. The text of this ancient hymn displays an overriding unity when viewed as a whole; each idea in the text logically follows the preceding one and flows directly into the next. To interrupt this flow anywhere, even where a division seems logical, with a sudden exclamation of "Glory"! is insensitive in the extreme. Fifteen centuries of musical practice affirm this judgment. Even worse is the case of Anderson’s Gloria ripping apart the progression of an idea in the penitential section and arranging it on either side of a refrain. Musically speaking, this is an indefensible case of poor text-setting. 22

Protestant hymnals do not have any responsorial settings of the Gloria for a very good reason; the Gloria is not a responsorial hymn. To set it as such violates the flow of ideas in the text and requires a kind of linguistic gymnastics to fit the text into verses. The very nature of the text makes it inappropriate for a responsorial setting, and the mountain of liturgical and musical problems that are created by attempting it cannot easily be solved if the end result even warrants the effort.

Through-composed settings, with everyone singing the entire Gloria, are not the only answer, of course. Tradition has provided other ways to sing the Gloria, antiphonal singing (alternating verses) and chanting being regrettably underused today. With these splendid traditional practices remaining to be explored, it is clear that the time has come to consign the responsorial Gloria to the scrap heap of failed liturgical experiments.

Andrew Brownell is a pianist who has won awards both as a soloist and as a chamber musician. He is currently a graduate student of music at the University of Southern California and serves as organist at St. Vincent dePaul in Los Angeles.


1 Flor y canto (Portland: Oregon Catholic Press, 1989), nos. 590-601.

2 "Gloria in excelsis", The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, ed. Don Michael Randel (Cambridge, 1986), 342.

3 Joseph Jungmann, SJ, The Mass of the Roman Rite, trans. Francis Brunner C.Ss.R., Rev. Charles Riepe (New York: Benziger Brothers Inc., 1959), 238.

4 "Gloria in excelsis", op. cit., 343.

5 The Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1985), S-201 through S-204, S-272 through S-281, S-396 through S-399.

6 Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship, Lutheran Book of Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1978), 58, 79, 100.

7 The Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), nos. 566, 575.

8 Christopher Walker, Celtic Mass (Portland: Oregon Catholic Press, 1996).

9 Vatican Council II, Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963), art. 22.3. Cf. Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, Instruction Inaestimabile Donum (1980).

10 The original Greek for this verse reads: doxa en uyistois qew kai epi ghs eiphnh en anqrwpois eudokias

11 Joseph Jungmann, SJ, op. cit., 234.

12 Ibid., loc. cit.

13 Christopher Willcock, SJ, God, Here Among Us Mass (Portland: Oregon Catholic Press, 1991).

14 Carey Landry, Young People’s Mass (Cincinnati, North American Liturgy Resources, 1979).

15 Marty Haugen, Mass of Creation (Chicago: G.I.A. Publications, 1984).

16 Landry, op. cit.

17 Mike Anderson, Gloria (Portland: Oregon Catholic Press, 1983).

18 Landry, op. cit.

19 Anderson, op. cit.

20 Peter Jones, Glory to God (Portland: Oregon Catholic Press, 1982).

21 Landry, op. cit. See the responsorial Sanctus and the treatment of Eucharistic Prayer II, rendered virtually unrecognizable and illicit with the addition of congregational acclamations.

22 Anderson, op. cit.

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The Editors