Oct 15, 2006

St. Mark’s – A Liturgy Without Hymns

Online Edition – October 2006
Vol. XII, No. 7

St. Mark’s — A Liturgy Without Hymns

by Joseph Swain

Once again I was blessed with the opportunity to live in the city of Venice for five months from July through December 2005 as director of an off-campus study group sponsored by Colgate University, where I normally teach. Since my last tour in 1994, a new director of music had arrived at the city’s most famous church, the basilica of St. Mark’s, burial place of the Evangelist and home to the Patriarch of Venice. Wondrous improvements had occurred in the liturgical music there. The new way of conceiving the musical programs challenges the American way of thinking about liturgical music in particular, because, you see, there are no hymns at all.

Look at the suggested programming and advice given in our liturgical “trade” magazines. Listen to people when they express their opinions and preferences, or to pastors or liturgy committees when they plan the music for their liturgies. In America, certainly, and likely elsewhere too, we fixate on “the four”: the songs sung at the beginning of Mass, at the offertory procession, after the reception of Communion, and at the very end.

This peculiarity derives from a mostly German pre-conciliar tradition of singing congregational songs and hymns at a “low Mass”, that is, a Mass entirely spoken with no music, at those points where Mass Propers would ordinarily be chanted by the choir at a more solemn liturgy. The celebrant would say the prescribed texts while the congregation sang a versified paraphrase in the best conditions, or just a familiar devotional song otherwise. The tradition, dating from the 18th century at least, was an outlet for the natural desire of congregants to sing in praise of the Most High at Mass. The Second Vatican Council, in the interests of such “active participation”, charged the congregation with singing the actual liturgical texts, but Proper chants are not easy, and so bishops seized upon the more elastic clauses in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and its subsequent instructions and allowed easier and by now much more familiar hymns to substitute.

With one exception, “the four” continue to act as placeholders for the texts prescribed in the Roman missal for particular feasts, that is, for the Proper texts of ancient tradition: the Introit or entrance antiphon, the Offertory antiphon, and the Communion antiphon. (They are all “antiphons” because it is thought that in ancient times these were not sung by themselves but in response to the verses of entire Psalms.) The exception is the modern recessional or closing hymn, which stands in for nothing at all, but merely satisfies our modern aesthetic need for the big finale as in an opera or Hollywood movie.

Nevertheless, our fixation on “the four” stands in some contradiction to the exhortations of the Council. “To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs…” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Art. 30). Songs are last in priority. Preconciliar documents on sacred music Mediator Dei (Pope Pius XII, 1947) and Musicae Sacrae (Pope Pius XII, 1958) and American guidelines such as Music in Catholic Worship (1983) set the same priorities, sometimes in more specific detail. But in a typical American parish, when resources limit the music, congregations will not sing Psalmody and Mass Ordinary settings (e.g. “Glory to God”) to the exclusion of “the four”, but rather the other way around.

And that is why the practice at St. Mark’s is interesting and instructive. At the half dozen solemn Masses I attended there, there was but one hymn, a Marian entrance song to the tune “O Sanctissima” for the Vigil of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Otherwise there was no music that Americans would call congregational songs or hymns, and yet the active participation of the people in a richly varied liturgical music was both frequent and fervent.

Here is the typical program:
1. Introit. After an organ prelude the choir sings a polyphonic setting of the Latin entrance antiphon for the day, with rousing organ accompaniment. The congregation stands, attending to the music and the substantial procession of at least a dozen ministers, followed by the incensing of the altar.

2. Invocation and greeting. These are chanted by the celebrant in the vernacular (Italian). The congregation responds in kind.

3. Kyrie eleison. Sung in Greek to a simple Gregorian melody, in the antiphonal manner, with the congregation answering the choir.

4. Gloria in excelsis Deo. Sung by the choir alone, usually in a Latin, polyphonic setting.

5. Prayer, chanted in Italian by the celebrant, following by the first reading which is spoken.

6. Responsorial Psalm. A cantor intones the antiphon, to which the congregation responds. The cantor then chants the Psalm in paired verses, all in Italian. After each pair sounds the congregational response.

7. Gospel Acclamation. Following the second reading (spoken), the congregation sings a simple Alleluia, with the choir singing the versicle. The Gospel is read in spoken Italian, except at the Patriarchal celebration of the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception, when it was chanted in Italian.

8. Credo. Always the well-known 17th-century Credo III of the Liber Usualis sung in Latin in the antiphonal manner between choir and congregation. The programs indicate the texts to be sung by the congregation with bold print.

9. Offertory antiphon. A polyphonic composition for the choir accompanies the procession and incensing of ministers and congregation.

10. Prefatory responses are chanted in Italian between celebrant and congregation. Then the celebrant chants the preface in Italian. The choir follows immediately with a polyphonic Latin Sanctus.

11. The Eucharistic Prayer is spoken in Italian by the celebrant. The Memorial Acclamation, a chant in Italian and the same each time, is sung by choir and congregation.

12. Pater noster. Sung in Latin by choir and congregation to the traditional chant (again the Latin text is printed in the program).

13. Agnus Dei. Sung in Latin by choir and congregation to a Gregorian melody.

14. Communion antiphon. A polyphonic composition for choir.

15. Dismissal rites. Chanted in Italian by the celebrant with the congregation responding in kind.

16. The “recession” is usually accompanied by an exuberant piece for organ. Occasionally the choir sings as well. In the latter case, an organ postlude follows.

The experience of this Liturgy at the Basilica of St. Mark offers at least five insights.

First, it clarifies how well chanted music and polyphony accommodate the dramatic continuity that is the Mass. By comparison, hymns and songs, whether Lutheran, Anglican, or some modern type, often seem to halt the liturgical action, except perhaps when they are covering a procession, because their explicit strophic (verse) form and strong sense of meter establish discrete musical structures unlike anything else in the Mass. They stand out, like a skyscraper on a rolling rural hillside. Perhaps that is why, historically, hymns were limited to the Divine Office (Matins, Vespers, etc.), which are essentially contemplative liturgies. The Mass, by contrast, is an action, with its own direction and flow. No music other than plainchant seems to move this action so well because chant, with its free rhythm, most efficiently sets the texts to be sung.

Second, the experience of the Liturgy at St. Mark’s contradicts completely the stereotype of polyphony and plainchant as, well, plain and always the same. The polyphonic settings at St. Mark’s range from the 16th to the 20th centuries, the latter filled with all manner of dissonances and sophisticated rhythms that sound worlds away from Palestrina. And the chant has at least six modes of presentation: solo voice a cappella, choir a cappella, congregation a cappella, and then those three with various manners of accompaniment and harmonization. It would be hard to match this solemn Mass for sheer variety of musical sound and effect.

Third, the Mass that is sung is the Mass that the liturgical books prescribe. Paraphrases and substitutions occur but rarely. It must be very close to what the Council fathers had in mind in Chapter VI on music, in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963).

Fourth, the congregation is relieved of the pressure to provide musical “variety” week after week. The most mobile texts, the Propers, are left to the trained choir, which is equipped to learn the hundreds of settings rapidly. The congregation does sing a new Psalm antiphon each week, but otherwise sings the core of ordinary prayers and acclamations that remain constant. Comfort level is high. Perhaps this explains the last insight.

Fifth, the absence of hymns means no loss of active participation by the congregation. Of the sixteen points of the liturgy listed above, the congregation sings in eleven, and participates by active listening and watching in the other five. The continuous movement and varieties of sound keep one constantly engaged. (My wife, a great lover of liturgical music, admitted that she had never even noticed the absence of hymns at St. Mark’s until she proofed this essay.) The congregational singing seems dedicated and enthusiastic, despite the constant transience of the tourist component. Indeed, that Credo III, a long and non-repeating chant sung from word sheets without musical notation, comes off as well as it does week after week indicates an earnest congregation indeed.

A major basilica like St. Mark’s, of course, enjoys resources known to few parishes: masterful organist, professional choir, and an abundance of ministers. Yet it does prove the wisdom of Council’s advice about the priorities of liturgical music. It encourages a bit of thinking beyond “the four”, perhaps some next steps that even small parishes may begin to take on the never-ending journey toward the perfect Liturgy.


Joseph Swain has taught music history and theory at Colgate University for 22 years. His Historical Dictionary of Sacred Music will be released by Scarecrow Press in December 2006. This essay appeared in Pastoral Music in August 2006, and is reprinted here with the author’s kind permission. An earlier essay by Dr. Swain, “Liturgical Latin — Reconsidered”, was published in the March 2003 edition of the Adoremus Bulletin.



Joseph Swain