Liturgically Creative Writing: Popular Development of the Sequences in the <i>Missale Romanum</i>
May 17, 2017

Liturgically Creative Writing: Popular Development of the Sequences in the Missale Romanum

The shape of the Roman Rite developed under the influence of many centuries and many hands from various lands. Naturally, the formation of this rite involved the collaboration of human ingenuity with divine institution. Even after the essential shape of the rite was established, the originality did not cease. Too often in modern times, this novelty has taken the form of illicit “creativity” on the part of the presider. There are, however, examples of novelties introduced into the established Roman Rite by organic means. Through a close study of their historical development and liturgical usage, it is evident that the sequences of the Missale Romanum, which are essentially popular in origin and nature, are one such legitimate expression of creativity within the liturgy of the Roman Rite.

Origin and Development
The sequentiae have been named variously over the centuries. They were predominantly known as prosae throughout the medieval period, but they had also been called hymni because of their relation to the innovative liturgical hymns of St. Ambrose in the fourth century.1 No complete account of the origin of sequences can be given, inasmuch as they seem to have developed organically within the liturgy while receiving little early documentation. Nevertheless, there is one general account of the sequences’ birth that commands near consensus among scholars as the most likely explanation of their origin. On this account, the sequences grew in a way similar to the rise of tropes, corresponding in time to the great age of Western monasticism.

Tropes were chanted commentaries upon the sacred liturgy that served both as flourishes and as introductions to such liturgical texts as the introit, offertory, communion, Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. Of themselves, tropes were non- or extra-liturgical. The practice of troping began in approximately the 9th century and ended near the conclusion of the 12th century.2 Throughout the duration of their usage, tropes came in different forms. Some consisted solely in the extension of the melody into a prolonged melisma, with no incorporation of additional words. Others were interpolations that grafted a text onto a melismatic passage of the liturgical chant by assigning a syllable to each note of the melisma. Alternatively, the trope could add both text and tones to the established chant, as in the famous trope on the Easter introit, Quem queritis in sepulchro. Precisely how tropes were executed is a matter of some speculation, but their influence in the creation and spread of sequences is clear.3

The unverifiable, yet widely accepted tradition among musicologists claims that the father of sequences in the Roman Rite is Notker the Stammerer (c. 840-912), rendered in Latin as Notker Balbulus. A monk of the Abbey of Saint Gall, he experimented with the practice of troping, historians believe, by giving syllables to each note in the melismatic ending of the Alleluia chants. It is common among Alleluia chants for the terminal syllable of “Alleluia” to be extended into a lengthy melisma. This extension, called a jubilus, afforded prime material to receive syllables for singing. Seizing this opportunity, Notker added words to the jubili as a mnemonic aid for learning the notes. As the words were given more meaning and beauty, however, this new kind of trope began to be appreciated for the sake of the words’ meaning as well as the musical notes. Indeed, it became a genre of its own, completely distinct from the practice of troping. Eventually, the sequence became distinct even from the Alleluia chant that gave the sequence its life.4

Notker the Stammerer (d.912)

The development of the sequences is well categorized into early, middle, and late periods.5 The early period begins in the ninth century and is summarized in the work of Notker, who published his Liber hymnorum in 887 as a collection of sequences, many of which were his own handiwork. These early sequences were characterized by a loose form of couplets interspersed with a few single uncoupled lines, particularly at the beginning and end of the text. One could diagram their structure in this way: A BB CC DD . . . X.6 The sequences of the early period possessed rather inconsistent meter, and almost no extant sequences from this period employ any degree of rhyme. Assonance, however, was a common feature of these sequences.7 In terms of usage, the sequence repertory was far from standardized in this period. A few (perhaps as many as 25) sequences from Notker’s collection became reasonably well known throughout central Europe; but most sequences were found only locally or regionally. An Italian school emerged early, featuring sequences much shorter than those of Notker. Both the Italian sequences and those of Notker in southern Germany give “the impression of a solemn sermon”8 by their artistic style and refined theological content.

The champion of the middle period is Adam of St. Victor (d. 1146), a monk at the Augustinian monastery of St. Victor near Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Encompassing the 11th and 12th centuries, the middle period for sequences was a transitional time in which the sequence genre forged by Notker Balbulus underwent revision and achieved greater solidity. The exemplar of Victorine sequences is one written to the Holy Cross: Laudes cruces attollamus. The sequences composed by Adam of St. Victor and his contemporaries exhibit more strict form than those of Notker, using only couplets and no single, unpaired lines. It was also at this time that rhyme was first introduced to this written form, in addition to the assonance Notker employed so widely. Rhyme was still not a necessary quality of the form, but it had begun to grow in popularity. Additionally, the syllabic length of each line started to become more or less even, albeit not perfectly so, and the overall length of the Victorine sequence began to grow considerably, often including ten or more couplets.9

The final stage in the development follows the middle period and lasts until the Reformation. There is no clear figure to serve as the paradigm of this late period from its inception in the mid-12th century, but the 13th-century sequences of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) are perhaps its greatest achievements. Notably, of the very few sequences retained for use in the Roman Rite, one of the texts utilized was written by Thomas Aquinas. These, together with the other sequences of the late period, display even greater metrical regularity than those of the former centuries, and rhyming couplets had become an almost invariable standard form of the now polished genre. Each half of the couplets consisted of two eight-syllable lines followed by one seven-syllable line (i.e., 8-8-7 / 8-8-7); moreover, the rhyme scheme within these couplets was A-A-B / C-C-B. Any aberration from the established strophic pattern in these later works could well be presumed to be the conscious intention of the author.

More significant than the external conformity of the sequences to a set form, however, was the immensity of their growth in profundity. The Parisian influence upon the sequences at St. Victor had introduced the beginnings of Scholasticism to the writing of new texts, and the scholastic influence burgeoned even further in the late period, such that sequences became highly vivid, precise, and meaningful expressions of theology. Thus, what likely began as Notker’s memorization tool for the melismatic jubili of the Alleluia chants grew over the course of centuries into an independent liturgical art blending poetry with music.10

Liturgical Usage

In analyzing how the sequentiarium came to be used and continue to be used liturgically, just as with its historical development, one must look at various stages. From the time of their invention, sequences always occurred within the liturgy, if the theory that they were originally built upon the Alleluia is true. Although sequences are not an essential component of the Mass, the sacred liturgy is nevertheless their native home.

Just as the tropes were textual interpolations into the liturgy, so the jubilus of the Alleluia is thought to have been a musical interpolation. One argument in support of this notion claims that the terminal vowel sound was extended as an ornament to accompany the procession of the deacon to the ambo. This is a reasonable claim, especially considering the common placement of the ambo in some medieval churches, high above the pews toward the middle of the nave. (The name “ambo,” itself, is thought to derive from the Greek infinitive anabainein, meaning “to mount to a high place.”)11 Others hypothesize that the jubilus was introduced from a Greek practice through an interface with the Byzantine rites.12 The most spiritual interpretation of the melismatic ending—held by Rupert of Deutz, Durandus, and Dom J. Pothier, among many others—calls the jubilus “an inarticulate expression of joy, by which the mind is carried up to the unspeakable joy of the Saints.”13 Still other arguments are plausible, and current scholarship does not admit of a definitive resolution.14

From the time of Notker to the 16th century, the number of sequences grew exponentially. Notker alone penned a sequence for each of the feasts of the Church year. Others did the same, and there grew an immense treasury of these liturgical poems. The largest number of them originated north of the Alps and Pyrenees, especially in modern-day Bavaria and France.15 The chief authors, in addition to the Stammerer and Adam of St. Victor, included Ekkehart of St. Gall (d. 973), Gottschalk of Limburg (d. 1098), and Thomas of Celano (d. 1250). Before the end of the medieval period, virtually every Sunday and feast day on the Church calendar had a proper sequence, penitential seasons excepted. There were Marian sequences and common sequences, used for feasts of saints that did not have a proper one. Some sequences were sung every day of the octave, while others were written for the Requiem Mass. The sequences were never obligatory, though, and so their actual practice varied greatly. Small country parishes with few musical resources may have utilized only very few sequences, whereas monasteries and cathedrals were likely to have a very rich practice of them.16

The Pentecost sequence, Veni, Sancte Spiritus, composed possibly as early as the 11th century, is sometimes called the “Golden Sequence” because of the august regard it has attained among the faithful.

The liturgical reform of 1570, in conjunction with the counter-Reformation efforts of the Council of Trent, limited the number of sequences to just four. These included: Victimae paschali for the octave of Easter, Veni Sancte Spiritus for the octave of Whitsun (now called Pentecost), Lauda Sion for the octave of Corpus Christi, and Dies irae for All Souls’ Day and Requiem Masses that immediately follow a death. More than a century and a half later, in 1727, the Stabat mater was added for the new feast of the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady.17 It is important to note, however, that these were not the only permissible sequences. Certain French and German dioceses retained the right to use others, on account of their instrumental connection to the creation of the form. The same was true of many religious orders, including the Augustinians, Benedictines, Franciscans, and others who had played a part in the development of the sequentiarium.18

Five Codified Sequences

Before looking at the subsequent reform, it will be worthwhile to examine in greater detail each of the five sequences retained in the missal as revised by Pope Pius V in 1570. Interestingly, the selection of these five was not based on the importance of their corresponding feasts. For, although the sequences on Easter and Pentecost were retained, those for Christmas, Epiphany, and Ascension, which are feasts of equal rank, were abolished. The first sequence that was retained, the Victimae paschali, was probably kept on account of the grand festivities surrounding the feast of Easter. Both its text and tune are anonymous, but attributed to Wipo (d. 1048). Although its original purpose was as a sequence for Mass, it became quite popular as part of Resurrection mystery plays. Its meter varies, it rhymes occasionally, and it portrays a lovely image of Christ, the Paschal Lamb.19

Victimae Paschali Laudes, the Easter Sequence, amplifies the Gospel and Alleluia as it relates the encounter of Mary Magdalene with the Apostles on the first Easter morning: “Tell us, Mary, what did you see on the road? I saw the tomb of the living Christ and the glory of his rising!”

Second, the Veni Sancte Spiritus may have been composed by Pope Innocent III at the turn of the 13th century or by King Robert the Pious of France at the turn of the 11th century. It is sometimes called the “Golden Sequence”20 because of the august regard it has attained among the faithful. It should not be confused, though, with the Veni Creator Spiritus, another very worthy but separate composition attributed to Charlemagne.21 This sequence was likely retained for the same reason that the Victimae paschali was: there were many customs and traditions associated with the annual feast of Pentecost. It has been the inspiration for numerous books and musical works.22

The sequence for Corpus Christi, Lauda Sion, seems to have been preserved out of respect for Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), its venerable author, and for its sublime theological content. Written in trochaic dimeter, it is composed rhythmically, but not with strict syllabic form. It is patterned perfectly upon the metrical structure of Laudes cruces attollamus, the famous sequence of Adam of St. Victor written to the Holy Cross that marked the major shift to the middle period of sequence composition.23 This composition, which appears to have been written by Aquinas on commission,24 is structured so as to highlight, through poetic extension, its concluding strophes. They are well known of themselves by their incipits, Ecce panis and Bone pastor.

Generally considered the greatest of all sequences and often called the “Great Hymn,”25 the majestic Dies irae may have been preserved on account of sheer popularity. Written at the time of the Black Death by the Capuchin companion of St. Francis of Assisi, Thomas of Celano, OFM (d. 1250), it was not originally intended as a sequence. The very idea of a sequence written for the Requiem Mass is somewhat of a misfit, inasmuch as the traditional Requiem has no Alleluia and consequently no jubilus from which a sequence might flow.26 It was first a poem inspired by the prophet Zephaniah and used in private devotion around Advent,27 but it appeared in the missal as a sequence for Requiems by the 13th century. Its final six lines (beginning at Lacrimosa dies illa) are not original to the work, and they break the rhyme and thought of the poem. The rest of the poem features rhyming trochaic stanzas, and its manipulation of closed and open vowel sounds is considered extraordinary.28

Lastly, the Stabat mater, added to the missal in 1727, is perhaps second in fame and admiration to Dies irae. Its author, Jacopone da Todi, OFM, had lost his wife before entering the Franciscans, so he was well acquainted with the sorrow of which he wrote.29 Like Dies irae, his poem was not first intended for liturgical use. It has been widely imitated, which is evidence of the great affection is has won among the faithful of many generations. A Christmas imitation, titled Stabat mater speciosa, is memorable for its quality and mystical approach to Christmas joy through Lenten affliction.

The Reforms of the Second Vatican Council

The liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council again reduced the number of sequences in the missal. In the current usage of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, the sequence is prescribed only for two feasts (Easter and Pentecost) and recommended for one (Corpus Christi). The Dies irae and Stabat mater were moved from the missal to the breviary, where they now appear as optional hymns for the Office of the Dead and in the days leading up to the penitential seasons. This relocation was very sensible, since neither the Dies irae nor the Stabat mater were intended to be liturgical sequences. They were written as hymns, which find their more appropriate home in the Divine Office. The three sequences surviving after the reforms of 1969-1970, on the other hand, were each written as sequences and specifically intended to be used as such.

This alleluia setting from Pentecost’s Mass during the day illustrates how a great melisma draws out the last syllable.

The placement of the sequence, from its inception, had remained constant because of its close affiliation with the Alleluia. It followed immediately upon the Alleluia (as its name, from the Latin sequere, “to follow,” suggests) and preceded the Gospel. The reading of the Gospel, in liturgical terms, is not simply a cognitive activity, but actually an encounter, or “apparition of Christ.”30 In this light, the role of the sequence can be seen not merely as filler; rather, it introduces the Gospel by the nature of its text, which often concludes with an eschatological couplet, directing our minds to the coming of Christ. After the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, however, the new lectionary placed the chanting or recitation of the sequence before the Gospel acclamation,31 while the Ordo Cantus Missae maintained the order in which the sequence follows the Gregorian Alleluia.32 The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) published in 2000 attempted to restore the traditional order across the board,33 but this action was undone by the 2002 GIRM, which clearly states that the sequence “is sung before the Alleluia.”34 The modern rubric placing the sequence ahead of the Alleluia is anomalous, since it separates the sequence from the component of the Mass from which it draws its existence and life.

Creativity in Liturgy

From the foregoing analyses, it is clear that the blossoming of the sequence in Catholic liturgy reached an unwieldy point. The over-abundance was resolved by the selective reduction of the Catholic reformers at Trent, and the process continued with the reform of the 20th century. This reduction can easily be viewed as the needed reform of “what had become an abuse and a threat to the integrity of the liturgy.”35 From this perspective, the action of reformers could be construed as the squelching of creativity that had legitimately found its home in the Roman liturgy.

One could alternatively propose, however, that the Council of Trent, in drastically reducing the sequentiarium, actually universalized such creativity. Prior to Quo primum (1570), the complete rite of Mass had never before been legislated so specifically and universally. The rise of Protestantism, however, inspired Catholic efforts to conserve the Church’s liturgy, while still permitting a degree of freedom, particularly in terms of ancient rites and usages. Indeed, by saving just the few most precious sequences for continued use, the Church implicitly embraced the art form that had previously been “merely tolerated” and “not obligatory.”36 It was the great “prudence of the Tridentine reformers”37 that they eliminated the plethora of poorer sequences and so let the principle of the sequence be dignified and made official by the retention of its best examples.

The revised missal promulgated in 1570 by Pope Pius V curiously included certain developments (e.g., the praying of Psalm 42 at the foot of the altar) while eliminating others (e.g., the majority of the sequences). All of the sequences, those eliminated and those retained, are of inestimable value to the Church’s liturgical, musical, and cultural patrimony, constituting a fascinating feature of the Roman Rite. Like the troparium, the sequentiarium “conceded a legitimate means for the creativity of man to find expression in the liturgy: a canticum novum appeared, which was, however, not intended to displace the canticum sacrum.”38 Herein, the great liturgical sequences show that even the Eucharistic banquet, of divine institution, can admit the legitimate creativity of man into its service.


The sequences give evidence of the manner in which the Roman Rite has historically embraced creativity and cultivated high art within its liturgical celebrations. The story of how the sequences developed points to a time when experimentation and innovation within the liturgy were common and accepted, when creativity was organically rooted in the essence of the established rite. First conceived and later developed as an art form at the popular level, the sequences gained wide acceptance into the liturgical praxis of the Roman Church for several centuries. Their more limited usage in modern times should be interpreted as a sign not of their rejection, but of the Church’s esteem.

Sequence: a hymn-like chant, with poetic text, appointed to be sung before the Gospel at Mass on certain liturgical feasts.

Melisma: a group of several notes sung to a single syllable.

Trope: the interpolation of unofficial words or melody into to an official liturgical chant,

common in the medieval period.

Jubilus: the concluding melisma sung to the final syllable of the Gregorian Alleluia.


Father David M. Friel

Father David M. Friel, STL has been a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia since May 2011. Having served as parish priest at St. Anselm Church in northeast Philadelphia, he is presently a doctoral candidate in liturgical theology at The Catholic University of America and serves as Vocation Director for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.


  1. Ruth Ellis Messenger, The Medieval Latin Hymn (Washington, D.C.: Capital Press, 1953), 6-7.
  2. The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, ed. Don Michael Randel (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1986), 877.
  3. William T. Flynn, Medieval Music as Medieval Exegesis (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1999), 13-6, 48-56.
  4. Messenger, 41-2.
  5. Some scholars, however, prefer to speak of only two categories, early and late, with a period of transition between the two. Among those preferring this latter categorization is Professor Lázló Dobszay. For our purposes, however, we shall distinguish the three periods: early, middle, and late.
  6. Lázló Dobszay, “The Life and Meaning of the Sequence,” Sacred Music 134, no. 2 (Summer 2007): 10.
  7. Adrian Fortescue, The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy (Albany, NY: Preserving Christian Publications, Inc., 1999), 273.
  8. Dobszay, 11.
  9. Dobszay, 12-13.
  10. Dobszay, 13-14.
  11. Steven J. Schloeder, Architecture in Communion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 89.
  12. Messenger, 40.
  13. Fortescue, 269.
  14. Messenger, 35-36.
  15. Fortescue, 274.
  16. John F. Bullough, “Notker Balbulus and the Origin of the Sequence,” The Hymn 16, no. 1 (January 1965): 14-15.
  17. Dobszay, 15.
  18. Bullough, 15.
  19. Fortescue, 276-277.
  20. Messenger, 48.
  21. The Seven Great Hymns of the Mediaeval Church, (New York: Anson D. F. Randolph & Co., 1868), 134.
  22. See Nicholaus Gihr, The Veni Sancte Spiritus: An Explanation of the Pentecostal Sequence, trans. L. M. Dooley (Island Creek, MA: Miramar, 1947).
  23. Joseph Connelly, Hymns of the Roman Liturgy (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1957), 125.
  24. Bullough, 15.
  25. Seven Great Hymns, 46, 96, 98.
  26. Fortescue, 278.
  27. Messenger, 50.
  28. Nicholaus Gihr, Dies Irae, trans. Joseph J. Schmit (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1927), 3.
  29. Seven Great Hymns, 96-97.
  30. Dobszay, 18.
  31. Missale Romanum ex decreto Sacrosancti Oecumenici Concilii Vaticani II instauratum auctoritate Pauli Pp. VI promulgatum, Ordo lectionum missae, editio typica (Vatican City: Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1969), 31.
  32. “Sequentia, si casus fert, cantatur post ultimum Alleluia.” Missale Romanum ex decreto Sacrosancti Oecumenici Concilii Vaticani II instauratum auctoritate Pauli Pp. VI promulgatum, Ordo cantus missae, editio typica altera (Vatican City: Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1987), §8.
  33. “Sequentia, quae praeter quam diebus Paschae et Pentecostes, est ad libitum, cantatur post Alleluia.”Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, editio typica altera (Vatican City: Typis Polyglottis Vaticani, 2000), §64.
  34. Sequentia, quae praeter quam diebus Paschae et Pentecostes, est ad libitum, cantatur ante Alleluia.”Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, editio typica tertia (Vatican City: Typis Polyglottis Vaticani, 2002), §64.
  35. Bullough, 13.
  36. Bullough, 15.
  37. Fortescue, 275.
  38. Dobszay, 8.