May 16, 2016

Kyrie Eleison and the Ordinary Form of the Mass

At the Penitential act, can settings of the Kyrie eleison from the past that have the Kyrie repeated three times, then the Christe three times, and then Kyrie three times be used in the Ordinary Form of the Mass? Could such be composed today?

In his classic work, The Mass of the Roman Rite, Joseph Jungmann describes the development of the Kyrie eleison, which in its earliest form was said or sung as a response to various petitions by all the faithful, much like our practice of the Prayer of the Faithful today.1 This is the practice described by the fourth century pilgrim Aetheria (or Egeria) in her written memoirs of a journey to Jerusalem. By the time of Gregory the Great (590-604), the response Christe eleison was added to the Kyrie, and the preceding petitions gradually began to disappear “in order to linger longer on these two invocations,” as Gregory states.2 The Kyrie and Christe, Jungmann says, were often repeated many times over during Gregory’s time, up to as many as forty times in the Byzantine East. As the Kyrie took shape in the Roman liturgy in the eighth century and beyond, however, its normal ninefold form (Kyrie eleison 3x, Christe eleison 3x, Kyrie eleison 3x) was established, modeling itself after the Trinitarian pattern. As Jungmann describes, “custom had thus consecrated the number three.”3 Dom Prosper Guéranger describes the trinitarian significance of the ninefold Kyrie, saying: “The first three invocations are addressed to the Father, who is Lord: Kyrie, Eleison; (Lord, have mercy). The following three are addressed to Christ, the Son incarnate: Christe, eleison. The last three are addressed to the Holy Ghost, who is Lord, together with the Father and the Son; and therefore, we say to him also: Kyrie, eleison.”4

The ninefold Kyrie normally has been sung by the schola cantorum, often in alternation between two choruses, from the eighth century up to the Second Vatican Council.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal issued after the Council introduced the innovation of the sixfold Kyrie into the Ordinary Form of the Mass, saying: “Since [the Kyrie] is a chant by which the faithful acclaim the Lord and implore his mercy, it is usually executed by everyone, that is to say, with the people and the choir or cantor taking part in it. Each acclamation is usually pronounced twice, though it is not to be excluded that it be repeated several times, by reason of the character of the various languages, as well as of the artistry of the music or of other circumstances.”5 Although congregational singing and the form of the sixfold Kyrie are given priority in the GIRM, the traditional practice of the ninefold Kyrie sung by the schola cantorum is not prohibited by it. In fact, the Kyriale Romanum6 issued following the Council contains several settings of the Kyrie from the Gregorian chant tradition that can only be sung in a ninefold manner. The introduction to the typical edition Ordo Cantus Missae7 (Sung Order of Mass) — which in 1972 arranged the chants of the 1908 Graduale Romanum according to the revisions of the liturgical calendar and rites undertaken following the Second Vatican Council — reaffirms the traditional practice. Article 2 states that “[t]he acclamation, Kyrie eleison, may be distributed among two or three cantors or choirs as opportunity dictates.”8 While it goes on to mirror the GIRM, stating that “[e]ach acclamation is normally sung twice…,”9 it continues, saying that “this does not exclude a greater number, especially on account of musical artistry….”10

Certain challenges and tensions arise in the singing of the Kyrie melodies found in the Kyriale Romanum as a result of the GIRM’s preference for the congregational singing of a sixfold Kyrie. Several of the more ancient melodies, such as the second Kyrie of Mass XVIII for the Mass for the Dead, are described by Jungmann as having a “plain litany-quality” in which “the same simple tune recurs eight times and only in the ninth is there any embellishment.”11 Several of such simpler settings can also be found in the Kyriale Simplex, 12 many of which even lack an embellished final Kyrie. These settings easily allow for the Kyrie to be sung in a sixfold manner as a kind of “call and response” form where the cantor sings a melody that is immediately repeated by the assembly for each of the three invocations.

Several of the more developed Kyrie melodies in the Kyriale Romanum move beyond the plain litanic form and provide a unique melody for each of the three invocations.13 In principle, these settings can be sung in a sixfold manner (as a call-and-response form) just as easily as they can be sung in a ninefold manner, with one exception: like the plain litanic form, this more developed form also includes a melodic embellishment, often unique in character, on the final Kyrie. When Kyries in either of these two genres are sung in the traditional manner (ninefold with alternation between two sections of a schola), the embellished ending serves as a perfectly featured melodic climax and conclusion. Often, after eight alternations between the two sections (sometimes highlighted by the contrast between all male and all female voices), section one begins the ninth Kyrie and sings up to the asterisk, where section two repeats what was just sung by section one, and at the double asterisk both sections come together for the concluding phrase which accentuates and definitively concludes the musical composition.14

In other settings the ninth Kyrie contains entirely unique melodic material.15 When these are sung in a ninefold manner they serve as a logical, fitting conclusion. When they are sung in a sixfold manner, the final Kyrie — which must be sung in order for melodic completeness —often comes as a surprise to the assembly at first, who intuitively expects a pure call-and-response form. It often occurs that when such settings are first introduced in a parish half of the congregation will treat the final Kyrie as a call-and-response, singing back what they have just heard, while the choir and the other half of the congregation sing the proper ending, creating a moment of melodic cacophony. Fortunately, these issues tend to resolve themselves after use for a few successive weeks, and perhaps more quickly with a prior brief note of instruction.

The Kyriale Romanum also includes settings that can only be sung in a ninefold manner.16 These settings anticipate the contrast of two choirs or sections singing in alternation and provide a complementary contrast in the melodic form. These settings, in addition to having highly contrasting sections, are also often melismatic in form and of significant melodic complexity, representing a later and more developed form of the genre. By their nature, they are not well suited to congregational singing, either in a sixfold or ninefold manner.

In practice, the great majority of Gregorian chant settings of the Kyrie found in the Kyriale Romanum are easily and successfully adapted to sixfold singing, as long as an adequate amount of time is given for assemblies to learn them and their proper endings well. The nature of the Mass Ordinary itself is highly repetitive, unlike the Mass Proper which virtually presents new texts and chants every day. This repetition is a pedagogical feature. As new Kyries are introduced into parish life — and, especially, taught to children — and repeated enough so that they can be properly internalized, they will be learned, known and lovingly sung by the faithful for a lifetime, and handed on from one generation to the next. They are melodically rich and endure the test of time. Further, for those who have the opportunity to sing them regularly in their appointed seasons, Kyrie lux et origo of Mass I begins to “sound like Easter,” while Kyrie orbis factor of Mass XI begins to “sound like Ordinary Time,” as can be the case in every season and for various classes of feasts.

When the Kyrie is sung in a ninefold manner, it would be most fitting for two contrasting sections of a choir to sing in alternation according to the traditional manner. The contrast of all male voices in one section against all female or treble voices in another is particularly beautiful! Further, if some of the simpler Kyries are sung ninefold, the congregation can be taught to sing in alternation with the choir, themselves serving as “choir two” which alternates with a cantor or a group of cantors. The greatest difficulty encountered in this situation is that the pattern of alternation causes the congregation to initiate the Christe eleison without hearing it sung first by the choir. This task is not impossible, but will be best achieved with proper initial instruction and with a great deal of repetition over time. The greatest practical benefit of this approach is that the congregation can entirely avoid the embellished ninth Kyrie eleison at the end, which, according to the pattern of alternation in this case, is taken up by the properly trained and equipped choir or schola cantorum. In some cases, parishes that have employed the ninefold Kyrie have not made the effort to sing in alternation and as a result the choir and congregation sing the entire chant together, continuously and without contrast. This approach can create a kind of monotony and redundancy that is not envisioned by the genre, and might best be avoided.

In parishes today, a varied repertoire of the plain litanic Kyries from the Kyriale Simplex, of sixfold Kyries with embellished endings from the Kyriale Romanum, and perhaps a few ninefold Kyries, whether in Gregorian chant or polyphonic choral settings that can be sung by a well-trained schola cantorum on more solemn feasts, would provide a wonderful balance and variety that both respects the priorities of the GIRM and is rooted deeply in the sacred music tradition. This would be the case even more if they are sung along with their complementary Gloria, Sanctus and Angus Dei.

The ninefold Kyrie can even be employed in new compositions, especially when these settings are intended to be sung by more highly trained choirs and scholae. It should be kept in mind, however, that the sixfold Kyrie sung in part by the congregation is the form that should be employed the majority of the time in the Ordinary Form of the Mass.


1. See Jungmann, Mass of the Roman Rite, vol. I (New York, Benziger, 1955) pp. 333-346.
2. Jungman, p. 339.
3. Ibid.
4. Prosper Guéranger, Explanation of the Prayers and Ceremonies of Holy Mass, http://www.sanctamissa. org/en/spirituality/explanation-of-the-prayersand-ceremonies-gueranger.pdf
5. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 52.
6. Contained within the Graduale Romanum, and consisting of eighteen complete Mass Ordinaries in Gregorian chant, six settings of the sung Creed, and numerous ad libitum settings of the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei from the Gregorian chant tradition.
7. Ordo Cantus Missae, Editio typica altera. Libreria Editrice Vaticana. 1988. The Ordo Cantus Missae is the official typical edition that provided the blueprint for the 1974 Solesmes edition of the Graduale Romanum, and other subsequent private performance editions.
8. Ordo Cantus Missae, Introduction, no. 2.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Jungmann, p. 344.
12. Contained within the Graduale Simplex, which was produced following the Second Vatican Council as a response to the request of Sacrosanctum Concilium that “an edition be prepared containing simpler melodies, for use in small churches” (see SC 117). The Lumen Christi Missal and Lumen Christi Simple Gradual (Illuminare Publications, 2012-2014) contain the whole of the Kyriale Simplex in addition to four chant Masses in English and eight of the most commonly sung Masses from the Kyriale Romanum (for more information visit
13. Such as Masses I, II, IV, V, VII, VIII, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XVI, XVII and XVIII. 14. Such as Masses IV and VIII, among others.
15. Such as Masses I, XI, XVI, and XVIII, among others.
16. Such as Masses III, VI, IX, X, and XV, in addition to the majority of the ad libitum settings.

Adam Bartlett

Adam Bartlett is the founder and CEO of Source & Summit. He is the composer and editor of Simple English Propers (CMAA, 2011), editor of the Lumen Christi series (Illuminare Publications, 2012-2016), and is the editor and publisher of the Source & Summit Missal and Digital Platform. He formerly served as a parish and cathedral music director, as a faculty member for the Liturgical Institute and Mundelein Seminary of the University of St. Mary of the Lake, as an adjunct faculty member for the Augustine Institute, and as a sacred music consultant for FOCUS. He lives in Grand Rapids, MI, with his wife and three children.