Hymn Tune Propers
Jun 15, 2013

Hymn Tune Propers

Online Edition:
June-July 2013
Vol. XIX, No. 4

Hymn Tune Propers

A First Step toward Singing the Propers of the Mass

Proper Antiphons for Michaelmas

14th c French manuscript (ink on vellum), private collection

by Kathleen Pluth

Recently I attended Sunday Mass in a parish in nearby Arlington, Virginia. The beautiful church was full of young families, and the music was wonderful. In addition to some excellent hymns, the choir also chanted several of the Proper texts of the Mass.

What Are the Propers?

The Propers of the Mass are orations and other prayers, including the antiphons, that are proper to or appropriate for a particular liturgical day. They are distinct from the Ordinary of the Mass — the texts that do not change according to the feast or season, including chants such as the Kyrie, the Gloria, and the Lamb of God.

A Proper chant is a prayer set to music, and it often takes the form of a brief text called an antiphon. An antiphon may be scriptural, or based on a scripture passage, or it may even be a patristic text. The Proper antiphon offers a “reading” of a biblical text and often refers to Christ, providing a very rich source of theological reflection for the Church. 

A Proper antiphon commonly appears with a psalm, and the antiphon is sung in a responsorial manner, or antiphonally, alternating the antiphon with the verses of the psalm. In the familiar form of a Responsorial Psalm, for example, the antiphon is the response verse that the entire congregation sings.

At every Mass there are these Proper chants:

1 – The Introit or Entrance Antiphon. (Masses are sometimes known by the first word of the Introit, such as the Masses for Gaudete and Laetare Sundays.)

2 – The Responsorial Psalm or Gradual, after the first reading. (The General Instruction of the Roman Missal §61 specifies that chanting the Gradual is permitted.)

3 – The Alleluia (or Tract during Lent) chanted before the Gospel. 

4 – The Offertory.

5 – The Communion.

There is another Proper chant, a hymn called a Sequence, which is sung on Easter Sunday and Pentecost (and optionally on Our Lady of Sorrows and Corpus Christi). 

The Pastoral Problem

The official Latin texts of the Propers set to Gregorian chant may be found in the Graduale Romanum or the shorter Gregorian Missal.  These Latin chants are musically interesting — and difficult. They are probably beyond the reach of most parish choirs, at least initially.

And so a pastoral problem has developed. On the one hand, the Propers are certainly worth singing. The Liturgy provides them as nourishment for the Church’s reflection with these scriptural texts that punctuate the Mass at its most important moments. They are delightful for meditation and formative for prayer. The People of God deserve to have contact with the Propers, and to receive this formation.

On the other hand, more often than not, chanting the Propers is too challenging to be immediately introduced into a parish. Therefore they are often omitted entirely and replaced by hymns. These hymns, even when well-chosen, usually have little connection with the Propers. Even when the hymns are theologically sound and musically excellent, they do not form the worshippers in the Church’s liturgical pray-er in the same way as the Proper texts do, nor do the chosen hymns always reflect the mysteries of the liturgical seasons as fully as the Propers do.

Building Proper Bridges

Unfortunately, most Catholics have no contact with the Proper texts at all, in part because introducing Propers is difficult. For most congregations, suddenly introducing Gregorian antiphons in Latin from the Graduale Romanum in place of the customary hymns would not be well received.  Many parishioners would probably be more puzzled or annoyed than edified, and would wonder, “Where did our hymns go?”

Bridges are needed, therefore, to carry people from hymns to Propers — to help parishioners realize the depth and spiritual value of the Church’s rich liturgical heritage in the music of the Propers.

Solid pastoral practice should begin carefully and proceed slowly, in a step-by-step manner. Pastors and music directors should be willing to compromise, and to start with small initial steps toward singing the Propers.

An example of one very effective compromise is to take an additive approach. People enjoy singing hymns and would not react well to having them suddenly replaced with Propers. But they might readily accept an Introit or Communion anti- phon that is added to the music, in addition to the usual hymns.

Another key first step is the introduction of simple, vernacular Propers. Many composers, such as Richard Rice, Adam Bartlett, Father Samuel Weber, OSB, and others, have composed musically accessible, English-language settings of the Propers. These settings meet congregations halfway. They respect the congregational resistance to dramatic changes, and yet still provide for parishioners’ needs for the prayerfulness of the Propers.

The Easiest Step: Hymn Tune Propers

A couple of years ago, I realized that an even more basic step could be taken. As a hymn text writer, I decided to arrange the words of the Proper texts to fit into the familiar metrical hymn form, a project I call “Hymn Tune Propers.”

A Hymn Tune Proper rearranges the Proper text into a standard, rhyming hymn form that can be sung to a familiar hymn tune. The experience of singing it is exactly like singing a one-verse hymn. It can be sung with or without accompanying musical instruments. Congregations previously unfamiliar with Propers can sing them on sight, even without musical notation, and no special preparation or rehearsal is needed. There are many hymn tunes that correspond to the exact meter of these specially “translated” Proper texts. Therefore, the priest or musicians can choose a hymn tune that the congregation is familiar with — one that they know already.

In some ways, these texts are similar to those in Christoph Tietze’s remarkable book Introit Hymns for the Church Year, the pioneering hymn-style treatment of the Propers. However, my texts are in several ways much simpler.

Every antiphon is in the same meter. Congregations may employ a single tune throughout the year, if desired.

Only the antiphons are provided. Par-ishes are free to add psalm verses and doxology (“Glory be to the Father…”) in a psalm tone if they would like, but these are not required. The main goal of the Hymn Tune Propers project is to enable congregations to begin singing the Proper antiphons immediately.

Since the antiphon is brief, it may be sung in addition to an Entrance Hymn, either before the Entrance Hymn begins, or when the procession has reached the foot of the altar.

I have completed an annual cycle of the Entrance Antiphons for all of the Sundays of the year. They may all be sung to any tune in long meter, which means four lines of eight syllables each (8888), with the stress on the even-numbered syllables. Two very familiar examples of long meter hymn tunes are “Winchester New” (On Jordan’s Bank) and “Old Hundredth” (All People that on Earth Do Dwell). A metrical index is usually provided in hymnals that will help pastors and music directors locate long meter hymn tunes.

It is my hope that the Hymn Tune Propers will help parishes make their first, easy steps toward the use of the Proper chants of the Mass.


Hymn Tune Introits for June 2013

Hymn Tune Introits are provided for the Sundays and major feasts of June 2013. Please feel free to sing these Entrance Antiphons at the beginning of Mass in your parish throughout the month.

June 2, Corpus Christi

He fed them with the finest wheat,
Alleluia, alleluia,
And honey from the rock to eat,
Alleluia, alleluia.

June 7, Sacred Heart

His heart’s designs forever stand,
From age to age His loving plan,
That He may save their souls from death,
In famine save their life and breath. 

June 9, Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Lord, my stronghold and my light
My saving help — whom shall I fear?
The evil-doers, with their might,
Will fall themselves, when they draw near.

June 16, Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

My voice, O Lord, incline to hear.
I call to You: my help, be near.
My faithful God and Savior be.
O Lord, do not abandon me. 

June 23, Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Lord God is His people’s might,
Protecting His anointed’s right.
Your heritage, Lord, save and bless,
And lead them, Lord, in righteousness. 

June 24, Birth of Saint John the Baptist (during the day)

God sent a man; John was his name,
For testimony to the light.
To make God’s people fit he came:
A people righteous in God’s sight. 

June 28, Evening, Vigil of Saints Peter and Paul

Th’apostle Peter, guide of all,
Worked with the Gentiles’ teacher, Paul,
And we enjoy their work’s reward:
To know the precepts of the Lord. 

June 29, Saints Peter and Paul (during the day)

These men drank from the Lord’s own cup,
In triumph o’er their weakness trod.
They helped the Church to be built up,
And they became the friends of God.

June 30, Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

All people dwelling on the earth,
O clap your hands, rejoice, applaud,
And with resounding shouts of joy
Cry out unto the living God.


Kathleen Pluth is based in the Washington, DC, area where she earned advanced degrees in theology at Catholic University and the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, and where she worked for five years as the music director of a large suburban parish. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in sacred theology. Her articles have appeared in English and American periodicals, and her collection of original hymns, Hymns for the Liturgical Year, was published in 2005 by CanticaNOVA Publications (canticanova.com/catalog/products/g_hymns_lit_year.htm). Her next project involves translating the ancient Latin hymns of the Liber Hymnarius.



Kathleen Pluth