Basic Structure of Liturgical Music

Continuing in our series on restoring traditional liturgical music, we will discuss the structure of the liturgy in relation to music and then the different liturgical roles.

In looking at the liturgy the focus will be on the Mass, but do remember that there is more to liturgy than just the Mass. The texts of the liturgy, generally speaking, can be divided into two different categories. These are the ‘Ordinary’ and the ‘Propers'.

The ‘Ordinary’ can be thought of as the underlying framework of the liturgy. These are the texts which, for the most part, do not change from day to day or Sunday to Sunday. In the case of the Mass this would be the ‘Order of Mass’.

‘The Propers are those texts which are assigned to specific liturgical days, in other words, the things which change from day to day, the Gospel at Mass, for example.

So then outlining the Mass in order, as concerns music we have-

1.The Introit antiphon (Proper)

2.Kyrie (Ordinary)

3.Gloria (Ordinary)

4.Epistle (Proper)

5.Gradual (Proper)

6.Alleluia or Tract(Proper)

7.Sequence (Proper)

8.Gospel (Proper)

9. Credo (Ordinary)

10. Offertory antiphon (Proper)

11. Sanctus (Ordinary)

12. Angus Dei (Ordinary)

13. Communion antiphon (Proper)

14. Also the responses sung throughout.

Note: In the Ordinary form a ‘responsorial psalm’ is often substituted for the gradual, and the Alleluia is often treated as if it is part of the Ordinary. Depending on day/class of feast there are differences (e. g. no Gloria). (For those who don’ know Kyrie= Lord have mercy, Sanctus= Holy, Holy, Holy, Angus Dei= Lamb of God)

We will now examine the differing liturgical roles and see how they apply to the parts of the liturgy.

There are basically 3 roles that different people have within the liturgy.

1.That of the Celebrant

2.The faithful in the pews

3.The Liturgical Choir

The Celebrant intones the liturgical responses. He intones the Gloria and the Credo. He or the appropriate cleric chants the prayers and readings. He may not be accompanied while singing. The chants for clerics are relatively simple. He may sing his parts on a single note (this is called ‘recto tono’). This single-note concession means that poor singing ability is not an obstacle to the priesthood or an excuse to not have sung liturgy.

To the faithful in the pews belong the ordinary parts of the Mass and joining in singing the responses with the choir. Historically the faithful sung the ordinary. As music developed and polyphony (harmony) came to be used at Mass, the faithful sang less and less. The 20th century popes called for a restoration of the faithful singing the ordinary. The Second Vatican Council asked that the faithful be taught to sing in Latin the parts which belong to them [1]. This does not, however, mean that polyphonic ordinary settings cannot be used or are now forbidden.

The liturgical choir has a distinct and real liturgical role. To the choir or Schola belongs the role of singing/praying the liturgical proper’s, the Introit (entrance) antiphon, the meditative Gradual and Alleluia, the Offertory and Communion antiphons. This is an authentic liturgical role complete with its own official liturgical book, just as the priest has his Missale Romanum, the choir has the Graduale Romanum. Historically the liturgical choir was made up of clerics in the sanctuary. In the course of development in the liturgy, as with altar serving, laymen filled in for clerics. Eventually mixed choirs came into being which necessitated singing outside of the sanctuary.

In order to implement the use of Gregorian chant it is necessary to have a liturgical choir, and for the liturgical choir to do its job it must be equipped. In the next installment we will discuss liturgical books including The Graduale Romanum and how to equip a choir to use them.

By Ben P.


[1] Sacrosanctum Concilium 54