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I Sing the Mighty Power of ELLACOMBE

The composite of this essay on hymn structure originated as a series of (“in-workshop”) bulletin entries written every week in the Parish Bulletin for my current post as Director of Music at St. Pancras Roman Catholic Church (Glendale, Queens, NYC). The bulletins ran from August 21, 2022 to October 30, 2022.


I decided to conceptualize this series of bulletin entries for my parishioners to forage into the under-explored discourse on the melodic components of liturgical music. Far too often, and for good reason, the conversation is centered on the text (or even how the melody supports "already theologically sound text"). But here, I posit to say that the structure of music itself can be a catalyst to deepening one's faith. This essay considers many factors — such as the interpersonal science of singing, melody (and, by extension, Form), as tools that edify parishioners beyond the text they sing to understand better their role in worship.


The wording has been manipulated and expanded from the bulletin entries to achieve both flow and a great deal of more detail within the article.

 

As humans, we are communicating mammals. More specific to that, we are breathing, sentient beings who use generative and mostly-autonomic processes of the human voice to generate (some semblance of) phonemes and graphemes into parts of words (morphemes), which then evolve into identifiable like-patterns and syntax — gestures of communication we share with others. At some point in human history, the way in which we communicate becomes contextualized further by cadence and embellishment — and, as creative beings, we very well use our potential to identify and adorn, further, the sounds we produce verbally or otherwise. We derive melodies that emulate, in some way, the contour of the way we relate interpersonally as mammals.


In the process of sharing such signals with others, we become synchronous beings. We unite this process with other communicating mammals; in fact, when we do this, we see remarkable recorded effects between our similar human anatomies and neurology. Two guitarists playing a melody together in unison synchronize their brain waves — interestingly, not just the matching of recorded waves from regular brain oscillations from motor memory, but as well as the frequency bands of such associated with the unconscious brain. A study published in the journal Frontiers of Neuroscience finds efficacy in singing as a form of “guided meditation;” when a group of 18-year-olds sang a metrical hymn together, their heart rates began to synchronize, allowing them to achieve a sense of collective calm.


When it comes to the activity of music-making and participating in a choir as it relates to the aging process, a 2021 study contends “…music engages multiple cognitive, motor, emotional, and social processes..." in that "...musical training has been found to enhance cognitive performance, with transfer effects on executive functions, attention, and memory [16, 17], and induce structural and functional neuroplasticity changes [18], especially in temporal, frontal, parietal, and cerebellar regions associated with higher-level auditory-cognitive functions [19].”


When we sing a melody, we approach the apex of human communication: one that unites people in syntax/cadence, in breath, in phrase. It is simply not possible for me to distill further the inherent spiritual importance of hymn-singing into an essay; but, I implore you to trust that, in the reading of this, I posit the firm thesis that community-based singing is the purest vessel for human connection, equally as technically as it is spiritually. We can build on this prerequisite understanding into a journey of ELLACOMBE (our entrance hymn for the weekend of August 21, 2022 — “I Sing the Mighty Power of God”), in which we learn more about the science of singing — then, how this particular tune melody, in all of its apparent phrase structure, relates to something much larger.


 


 

We break down the way humans connect with each other scientifically in the communal experience of making music. We distill this in understanding the synchronicity between neural connections that occur between instrumentalists and singers alike, in a real-time performance setting (such as participating in singing in a group). We distill this further through the very-relevant, all-encompassing vessel of hymn singing during the Catholic Liturgy, which breaks down in the way melody is used to support text — surely, a highest form of communication and synchronization that could very-well outweigh the perceived intent behind any of our spoken words. And sure, we often engage with composed melodies in the Anglican/Protestant tradition, as these metrical melodies comprise a great number of the Catholic hymns we sing. Truth be told, there is so much that we do in the realm of "semi-conscious" when we sing anything to God — certainly beyond the text we sing. (In fact, the text we sing is not at all a focal point of this writing, but rather, the oft-under-explored facets of everything else that supports already theologically sound text.)


Singing encompasses a unique procedure of mind beyond motor skills and brain-waves. In Chapter 7 of "Religion as a Social Determinant of Health" (compiled by Dr. Ellen Idler), Don E. Sailers provides a corollary to the general scientific phenomena, but from the perspective of congregational hymn singing in the Protestant tradition. He writes, "hearing and listening (attentively) involve different aspects of the brain and of human intention... the act of singing involves an even wider mental and physiological range of human capacities; it involves breath, formed musculature, pulse and pitch discrimination, memory skills, and the ability to listen to others..." As singers, we certainly employ the seamless processes of breathing and cadence to supplement such a meaningful act of singing, regardless of what it is. We can venture to break this down, even further, into how we understand the actual written melodic/Formal structure of the music we sing.

 

Originally published in 1784 and named for a village in Devonshire, England, ELLACOMBE as a melody saw its origins published in a chapel hymnal (Gesangbuch der Herzogl) for the Duke of Würtemberg. The triumphant, overtly-rhenish hymn tune was set to the words "Ave Maria, klarer und lichter Morgenstern," and, over its next century, spread and evolved to see several modifications of its original source material — both in melody, and, of course, in varying text. ELLACOMBE's popularity in the Anglican church (and English-speaking world at large) came in the mid-19th-century with its inclusion in Hymns Ancient and Modern, where John Daniell set the melody to one of its many English settings: "Come, Sing with Holy Gladness."


Ellacombe, a district of Torquay, Devon (England) (from Christopher Hislop, Wikipedia contributor)


Our entrance hymn that we sang for the weekend of August 21, “I Sing the Mighty Power of God,” uses this very hymn tune as a companion to author and English theologian Isaac Watts' famous prose. In fact, this text, which follows a usual 8.6.8.6 meter, was written originally for Watts' 1715 publication Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language, for the Use of Children. As opposed to the current and most commonly used iteration of three eight-line stanzas, the original publication used eight four-line stanzas, with some brief alterations (i.e. "We sing" versus "I sing") in the written text.


When we sing a hymn like this, we are singing a hymn that already spans centuries of history: a melody of meaningful tradition that, most pertinently for the sake of this project, carries a familiar and pedestrian tune structure that would help one to be introduced to the scientific phenomenon of which he or she is an active part.

 

So — how exactly does each measure of a 16-bar melody confer a scientific phenomenon? Well, firstly, it is important we begin the comprehensive dissection of any hymn we sing to what we understand about human breath: breath, which informs our communication as well as our singing, in defining the phrases by which we chant.


Let's start, even, by breaking down the "mechanics" of what goes into singing "I Sing the Mighty Power of God" with ELLACOMBE. The first full measure of such a sung melody begins on the word “sing,” with its preceding word “I” on what is referred to as the ‘anacrusis’ measure, or the unstressed syllable that serves as the ‘pick-up’ to the music.

The song is then broken into measures of four beats, divisible by 4 or 2. This informs a very framework that taps into the proprietary cadence that is intuitive to us as humans. It is likely that, when you are singing a hymn tune like ELLACOMBE, you probably take a breath between two measures at-a-time (a sub-phrase), or, in some more ambitious cases (and for more trained vocalists), you can "carry through" the breath for four measures. Just think of the big breath you take before verse 1 — “I” at the very beginning, and before “That” on the fourth beat of the second measure, which leads you into measures 3 and the first three beats of measure 4. When this happens, you are identifying overall phrase and sub-phrase beginnings and endings within the confines of the hymn tune itself.



At the melody's VERY beginning, we start the phrase — we look to our neighbor, and we choose (semi-consciously) to accommodate and homogenize their breath into one unit: what we sing together. Out of artistic necessity, we aim to match those around us, which results in a unified, congregational sound; In breath alone, we, by necessity, forge a communal experience. Herein lies the beginning to the scientific phenomena we learned about above. Could there be more to it from here?

 

Of course, the contour of the melody itself is also worth taking note of as we sing the first verse of ELLACOMBE. Let's dissect it — “I sing the mighty power of God That made the mountains rise” sounds awfully similar to “That spread the flowing seas abroad, And built the lofty skies” (the 2-measure phrase that follows), doesn’t it? That’s because these two overall phrases are nearly identical:





You may notice that they both begin and are sung the same way but have different endings: “mountains rise” ascends to a high gestural note, and “lofty skies” concludes the second phrase with more a completed “answer” to that first phrase. (Take a pause and sing through them both, below, and pay special attention to where you feel there could be an unresolved ‘tension’ at the high-point of the first phrase and how it is subtly resolved in the second phrase).


In the study of [Western] music theory — particularly, 18th-century harmony and Form analysis, which would be appropriate to use when analyzing an 18th-century German hymn tune such as ELLACOMBE — we call this a musical ‘antecedent’ and a ‘consequent.' Much like a spoken sentence in a non-tonal language that can be informed by the human propensity to provide stylistic contrast and cadence to one’s elocution, such a melody structure informs our humanistic need to create tension and resolve it to construe some sense of a narrative within the confines of our twelve-note system — all of this to say that, otherwise, the pitches of the melodies we sing would be stagnant and less evocative of its accompanying syntax (more on this later).


It would be a worthwhile endeavor to state that the way in which text is set effectively to melodies also justifies well to this question/answer structure. Notice, initially, how the manner of the melody of such a surviving and effective hymn — all of its crests and troughs in these first two phrases — seems to run adjacent to the actual textual stress of each word of the sentence itself. Then, invite yourself to notice how Isaac Watts' text carries its own series of antecedents and consequents. The way in which both textual accents as well as semantic tension-and-release are supported in an accompanying hymn-tune like ELLACOMBE is surely not unintentional. Analyze the text of the first eight bars of Verse 1, below:

Verse 1:

I sing the mighty pow'r of God

That made the mountains rise, [antecedent]

That spread the flowing seas abroad,

And built the lofty skies. [consequent]

Text: CMD; Isaac Watts, 1674–1748, alt. Music: Gesangbuch der Herzogl, Wirtembergischen Katholischen Hofkapelle, 1784, alt.; adapt. fr. Würth's Katholisches Gesangbuch, 1863.


And going back to the internal structure and "phraseology," we now reflect on the autonomy of these first two-phrases and how the diptych of two four-bar phrases feels like a complete structure because of its antecedent-consequent structure. And we are made aware of the importance of melody and text having a symbiotic relationship that supports the other. And, surely, I could decide to continue focusing on the first two phrases of "I Sing the Mighty Power of God."


But, before jumping to conclusions, we must first analyze the rest of the published hymn in all of its 16-bar glory, which informs the vision of ELLACOMBE as an exemplar congregational melody that outlines such tenets of communication in the human condition.

 

So — the science of singing, the history of a hymn we sing, the breath we share when singing, and the way in which we understand the melodies we sing are all part of the consummate experience of singing hymnody. But, now, we focus in on the context of the rest of the hymn melody, which elucidates for us even further the importance of singing melody.


We see the melody of the first two phrases and their antecedent/consequent relationship. Now, “I sing the wisdom that ordained The sun to rule the day” begins the third phrase of the composite form and introduces a completely different melody than what we’ve seen.


Sing it out loud in juxtaposition with the openings of the first two phrases, and you’ll notice that the beginning now uses different pitch material. The phrase starts higher than the range of the previous melodies, occupies in one’s voice a generally higher tessitura (area of one’s vocal range), and continues in this high range for the full duration of the four-bar phrase.


Because of the continuity of the sentence (and lack of presence of a comma, which would normally signify a breath or a vocal break), we must remind ourselves that the text is the entity which reigns supreme in the music (as the melody of this metrical hymn-tune is merely a supplement to a powerful and "already theologically sound" text), and, therefore, we likely accommodate for this in singing this entire four-bar phrase in one breath.


Let's even break this four-bar phrase down into its two melodic segments, and we realize, then, a striking similarity between both phrases. If we start with the two-measure instance of “I sing the wisdom that ordained” we notice, immediately, the triumphant undulation of notes — consistent, agogically significant (of lengthier duration, specifically) quarter notes in this high-register melody presentation.


Immediately following this is a continuation of the sentence “…The sun to rule the day,” which reiterates the same pitch material but with a dotted-half note ending, similar to that of the ending of the antecedent and consequent phrase of the first 8 bars.


When singing, we begin (semi-consciously) to notice several layers of similarities present by the 12th bar. And we notice, thus far, that it is possible to relate sections to one another based on both their major and minor differences. But what truly unifies together the structure of the hymn melody is its four-bar conclusion, what we sing to end the first verse as “the moon shines full at his command, and all the stars obey.”


Of the three 4-bar phrases we’ve discussed so far, what is the closest 4-bar segment that resembles this phrase?


If you answered the second one ("PHRASE 2") — “that spread the flowing seas abroad…” — then you are correct. Here they are, in juxtaposition:




As you see, the notes of the second phrase and fourth phrase are fully identical. And that's not even the full picture, yet!


When analyzing a 16-bar melody, we can take special note of what is the same and what is different: and these are spatial considerations in the contour of such a melody that — yes — we do accommodate for “in performance” (otherwise, as you’d figure by now, we'd sing them incorrectly or off-key)!


When we assemble the disparate four-bar phrases together, we can analyze the entire composite hymn melody at large. We learned, earlier, that the hymn’s first 8 bars (a four-bar phrase and a four-bar phrase, for continuity’s sake) follow an antecedent/consequent relationship, where two identical phrases are made different only through their respective cadences — one that poses a musical “question,” and one that tonally resolves such a question with its “answer.” We’ve also learned thus far that, while this eight-bar arc can tell its own story, it’s contextually inconclusive without further development from a third, totally-contrastive 4-bar phrase and a fourth phrase that mirrors (identifiably) the second phrase.


Should we consider prescribing letters to the 4 contrasting bar structures, one could be guided to arrive to some conclusion like this: the codified musical Form of AA’BA’.


AA'BA'

A



A'



B



A'



Author Leon Stein describes musical Form (hereafter identified and capitalized) as the following:


"The structure of [F]orm of a composition is its pattern or plan. The function of [F]orm is to make music intelligible and communicative by the orderly arrangement of its materials..."


In her paper, "Parametric Analysis of Contemporary Musical Form," Mary Wennerstrom extrapolates on the above definition by writing:


"...[F]orm is shape or structure ... [F]orm is considered to be the totality of shape which we perceive in experiencing any multi-unit object."


In an AA'BA' Form as such, we use letters to determine the varying sections of a composition. “A” signifies the first phrase — the very first presentation of any thematic material (so it cannot be anything other than "A," of course!), "A’" (pronounced as, "A-prime") signifies the slightly contrastive, “consequential” relationship of the second phrase to its first, "B" represents the totally contrasting third section (or “B” section), and "A’" ("A-prime") returns again, representing the identical reprise of our second phrase. We consolidate this together to a comprehensive 16-bar Form that repeats in several verses (a strophic, or repetitive, macro-Form). This method of analysis is most clear for use in melodies as such: as the sections are of equal duration, and the contrasts are either stark or subtle (hence the difference between a letter and a "prime," respectively).


Though this is not, in-and-of-itself, a requisite determiner of Form, I've decided to include annotations of the sub-phrase structure of each phrase, as well, to tie into the discussion on the "physical" aspect of singing each phrase (as it would be in a worshipping congregation). With the sub-phrase analysis added in, the music is now annotated completely with many of the cerebral considerations we take into account, semi-consciously, as when we sing as part of a congregation.


Let's analyze, now, the fully composite string of Isaac Watts' text — resplendent with inherent textual stress, antecedent-consequent structure, and, now, considerations in their accompanying musical Form of AA'BA':

Verse 1:

A: I sing the mighty pow'r of God

That made the mountains rise, [antecedent]

A': That spread the flowing seas abroad,

And built the lofty skies. [consequent]

B: I sing the wisdom that ordained

The sun to rule the day; [antecedent]

A': The moon shines full at his command,

And all the stars obey. [consequent]

Verse 2:

Verse 3:

Text: CMD; Isaac Watts, 1674–1748, alt. Music: Gesangbuch der Herzogl, Wirtembergischen Katholischen Hofkapelle, 1784, alt.; adapt. fr. Würth's Katholisches Gesangbuch, 1863.

 

As singing and worshipping Catholics (one and the same!), we are constantly educated musically by hymnody that is all-the-more effective when it is a vessel to that which we already know. (Yes, Anglican/Protestant tradition from centuries and centuries ago can still relate to us, personally, as worshipping singers of hymn in the 21st-century!).


"I Sing the Mighty Power of God" has a melody that is, in fact, unified by one Form: AABA, or (more specifically), AA'BA'. And to jump off this point, such a Form like this in music (two repeating sections, a third contrasting section, and a recapitulation of the first section — that is) is certainly not uncommon.


Even variations of the "AABA" Form within strophic music (again, large-scale structures that are meant to repeat, such as much congregational hymnody) is found quite frequently everywhere: Take, for instance, a melody like Harold Arlen's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" — sing the first full section, then sing its melodically-identical second section, then its contrasting third section, then its fourth section, which is a direct reiteration of the [harmonically* and, thus, formally] conclusory second section.


AA'BA'

A



A'*



B



A'


"Somewhere Over the Rainbow;" Text: Yip Harburg, 1896–1981, Music: Harold Arlen, 1905–1986.


Are there other examples of the exact AA'BA' Form that is found in the melody of ELLACOMBE? Sure. Perhaps the more-secular readers of my column can consider the melody of Mel Tormé's beloved "The Christmas Song," where the first phrase ("Phrase 1") ends in a chromatic flurry ("folks dressed up like eskimos"), repeats its whole section once more (this time, with a “minor contrast” of assured tonal closure — "will find it hard to sleep tonight"), only to be met by a totally different B section, which is then followed by an almost-exact reprise (almost — hence the (A')') of the tune's second Formal section ("Merry Christmas to you"). Sing the below examples in your head to support your learning:


AA'B(A')'

A



A'



B



(A')'



"The Christmas Song;" Text and Music: Robert Wells, 1922–1998; Melvin Howard Tormé, 1925–1999.


A note on rhythm in the above examples: the rhythm has been diminuted (divided [in this case by a factor-of-two] in duration) for sake of clarity, as it pertains to elucidating Form within a four-bar structure, as it would be in the example of ELLACOMBE. Though, certainly, Form in metrical/strophic music is not just evaluated on a premise of four-bars. It's all about how the measures relate to the composite whole: a "phrase" in any codified Form could be as long as 16 or 32 bars (or perhaps longer), or as short as one measure.


AABA

An example of AABA with one-measure phrases.

"Hot Cross Buns." Traditional. Arr. Copyright © 2019 Milton Dove, RiffSpot.com. Purchased; Used for Educational Purposes.


For this same reason (that it is, in fact, about how smaller sections relate to a composite melodic whole), I've omitted considerations in tempo, groove, or harmony — though, in some more nuanced cases outside of the purview of this essay, all of these musical tools can confer Formal changes.


*Especially in that latter case of harmony (see asterisks above on "Somewhere Over the Rainbow")— some more musically-inclined singers of such a melody may notice that the melody remains the same between sections, yet there is implied harmonic contrast at the tail-end of otherwise identical melodic statements. Therefore, the familiar "AABA" Form becomes an "AA'BA'" Form. These "contrasts" at hand can be purely harmonic, yet are not necessary to understand in a fundamental study of Form as it pertains to melody, the primary vehicle by which we are awakened to Form in hymn singing.


In addition to this, being that such familiar hymnody occurs in a strophic Formal setting, the idea of identifying contrasting lyrics over identical melodic iterations as "changes in Form" is also superfluous and need not be considered.

 

Of course, there is so much more than even just "AABA" in formal Western music of the 18th-century that defines the history of the Anglican/Protestant metrical hymn tradition of which we take part. There exist Forms such as AAB, ABA, ABACABA, and, quite-literally, tens of thousands of others in varying complexity and variation.


The idea of Form concerns our spatial engagement with melody as a tool in which we awaken ourselves to a composite whole. We know that the heart of hymnody is found in the symbiotic relationship between text and music — particularly, the way music supports syntax alone, whether it's through breaths that correspond to natural human cadence, intently wavering melodies, or in recognizable macro-Forms, which are larger bodies of Formal structure that are dissected in the same way a strophic melody can be broken down. In all music where Form is found and familiar (particularly in the realm of strophic music), it's a given that composed melodies attempt to relate tangibly to the people who sing them. We've seen how very possible it is that people scaffold themselves to understand song Forms more easily.


From where we are now, we are met with a series of inquiries on “why” as much as we are “how.” When it comes to the topic of hymn-singing — which can distill down most easily this very idea of structure — a large question still stands: that why sections of anything, melody or otherwise, bother tapping into this modality of relevance. After all, this is what begins to makes it appealable to us as living, communicating, and sentient mammals. So how can one contend from this "macro-Form" as a vessel for community — especially when it comes to participating in a larger structure?


Well, the answer is simple. We are beings who crave narratives — and, once we identify these, we find patterns and bridge our understanding of such patterns to such narratives. In his article for the Journal of New Music Research, “Periodicity, Pattern Formation, and Metric Structure,” author Edward W. Large brings into consideration several points regarding the role of the perceiver in a periodic environment. He writes, “Performers and composers create patterns of sound with reference to [expectations] [of melody, harmony, compositional structure, social context, and even behavioral responses]…. The most basic [role of the listener in understanding the structure of music] is the expectation of periodicity and, more generally, the expectation of stratified, multi-periodic structures.” He continues to acknowledge the hypothesis, further on, that “the temporal structure of listeners’ expectations is a dynamic, self-organizing multi-periodic structure… [this structure] allows anticipation of future events, enabl[es] perceptual targeting, and coordination of action with musical events.”


And what becomes of this is a marriage between the text/melodies we sing and the personal experiences we have as humans who render such narratives. The content of music (which is interwoven between and through Forms) and, of course, the overarching Form become not exclusive to one another — in fact, in their excavation as serving the human perception of periodicity, they are made all-the-more complementary. In his article, "Das Vermittlungsproblem in der Kunstsoziologie Adornos," Peter Bürger cites a passage from Juri Tynyanov, which is then translated in a Journal for the Royal Music Association: ‘The originality of a literary work consists in the application of a constructional factor to a material, in the “formation” (in fact, in the “de-formation”) of this material. It is to be understood that “material” and “[F]orm” are throughout not opposed to one another, that material is itself “formal”, for there is no material apart from construction.’

 

Form in the Roman Rite


We are made increasingly aware of the level of adaptable detail and interchangeability that can be uncovered with Form Analysis. We use Form and periodicity, which are themselves renditions of narrative storytelling, to emulate our uniquely human experience. We see that such structure-based narratives are, in-fact, scalable; Form is a way to relate to the smallest of melodic material, which contains its own internal structure. It is also a way for us to unveil, for ourselves, the concept of "macro-structure" that occurs when we scale upwards our psycho-sociological propensity towards fully composite narratives.


Our celebrated Roman Catholic Liturgy is thus, in its own way, a complex iteration of a musical Form.


The Catechism of the Catholic Church (340, no. 1346) reads that the Mass follows a "fundamental structure which has been preserved throughout the centuries down to our own day." Of course, the Mass we experience every week (or day) can be broken most simply into its two principal parts (or "movements"): the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. But the full Mass can be broken down further into its usually fixed components (the "Ordinary Form" of the Mass) in tandem with its variable components (the Mass "Propers"), the latter of which usually relate to the specific Mass as it falls on the Liturgical Calendar.

More specifically, variable components as such also include the Collect/Antiphons/Prayers. These are elements that vary as they contribute to a specific Rite within the Mass. For example, an entrance antiphon, Greeting, the Penitential Rite, and the Opening Collect are components of the Introductory Rites that will utilize different proclaimed text based on the demands of a specific Solemnity/Feast/Memorial being celebrated within the Liturgical Calendar.


In the sub-header "Structure of the Roman Rite of Mass," the entry of Mass (liturgy) from the Religion Wiki on fandom.com does well in explaining the variability of these Mass texts.


"Within the fixed structure... the antiphons sung or recited during the entrance procession or communion[] and the texts of the three prayers known as the collect, the prayer over the gifts, and the post[-]communion prayer vary each day according to the liturgical season, the feast days of titles or events in the life of Christ, the feast days and commemorations of the saints, or for Masses for particular circumstances (e.g., funeral Masses, Masses for the celebration of Confirmation, Masses for peace, to begin the academic year, etc.)."


These "thematic" texts as such — brief "alterations" to each Ordinary Form — can also be informed significantly by the Lectionary (an assigned collection of Scripture to be read on Sundays/weekdays in alternating, two-and-three-year cycles). Texts like this are placed within the rubrics of the Roman Missal that are usually unobstructed, regardless of day and regardless of location. Perhaps identical to the way a notated musical theme is re-contextualized in the presence of new material (the way, for instance, "A" becomes "A-prime"), so is the way that Propers and the composite of the Liturgy are affected by these variable components.

A photo of the Roman Missal from Homiletic & Pastoral Review. Used for Educational Purposes.

The Roman Missal (2011 — Approved by the USCCB)
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On their article, "Questions about the Scriptures used during Mass," the USCCB familiarizes us more specifically with the variability of readings (the Lectionary) as dictated by two sets of cycles that run congruent with the Church calendar. These determine sets of readings that are proclaimed in each Liturgy:


"The Lectionary is arranged in two cycles, one for Sundays and one for weekdays.

The Sunday cycle is divided into three years, labeled A, B, and C. 2020 was Year A. 2021 is Year B, 2022 is Year C, etc. In Year A, we read mostly from the Gospel of Matthew. In Year B, we read the Gospel of Mark and chapter 6 of the Gospel of John. In Year C, we read the Gospel of Luke. The Gospel of John is read during the Easter season in all three years. The first reading, usually from the Old Testament, reflects important themes from the Gospel reading. The second reading is usually from one of the epistles, a letter written to an early church community. These letters are read semi-continuously. Each Sunday, we pick up close to where we left off the Sunday before, though some passages are never read...


"The weekday cycle is divided into two years, Year I and Year II. Year I is read in odd-numbered years (2021, 2023, etc.) and Year II is used in even-numbered years (2020, 2022, etc.) The Gospels for both years are the same. During the year, the Gospels are read semi-continuously, beginning with Mark, then moving on to Matthew and Luke. The Gospel of John is read during the Easter season. For Advent, Christmas, and Lent, readings are chosen that are appropriate to the season. The first reading on weekdays may be taken from the Old or the New Testament. Typically, a single book is read semi-continuously (i.e., some passages are not read) until it is finished and then a new book is started."


In addition to the changeability of certain texts in the Mass, one may be made aware of four allowed instances of additional commentary by the presider during the Liturgy, the most familiar of which being the homily. Based on the rubrics of USCCB guidelines, these permit the celebrant to, if he chooses, add paraphrase and personal commentary alongside specific prescribed junctures in the Mass. Whether or not they are utilized, they are allowed, and a presider can make use of them, hence the potential for them to occur and vary the Ordinary Form within the celebration of the Mass even further. These are, in order of where they would occur during the celebration of the Mass:

1) Before or During the Introductory Rites:

2) Of course, at the Homily:

3) Before the Universal Prayer:

4) and Before or During the Concluding Rites:

An important distinction to make is that these writings and citations on the Ordinary Form pertain exclusively to the Novus Ordo (the "new order of the Mass") that has been celebrated throughout the Universal Church since its implementation by Pope Paul VI in 1969, and not the Classic Roman Rite which preceded it. The celebration of the Classic Roman Rite (also referred to as the "Tridentine Mass," or the "Extraordinary Form") reigned from 1570 to 1969 and focused more on liturgical singing (or chanting the entire texts of the Mass), whereas the purview of this writing/the Novus Ordo focuses on the concept of devotional singing (singing only at specific junctures of the Mass) that emerged out of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council ("Vatican II"). The function of Form moveable parts within a fixed structure — still remains true between both the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms.


In his book, The Musical Shape of the Liturgy, Professor William Mahrt contends that the [Classic] Roman Rite uplifts Catholic worshippers to a consummate liturgical experience through the chant-based music that is sung through the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, as much as it does with the prayers, rubrics, and liturgical calendar. While the practices of the modern Novus Ordo stipulate that the Mass need not be completely sung, ideas found within Prof. Mahrt's writing (particularly his identification of the role of chant in worship nonetheless) still hold true to the contemporary practice of liturgy in the Catholic Church:


"As the [P]ropers, the Gregorian cycles of the ordinary show an ordering from simple to complex, but this is not so much a difference of the individual parts, as it is a difference between whole cycles, and corresponds to the degree of festivity of the particular day; the most elaborate sets of chants for the [O]rdinary are generally assigned to the higher feasts, the simplest to the ferial days. The total order of the Mass, then, consists of interlocking cycles of priest’s prayers and lessons, propers, and [O]rdinary..." (Chapter 1: Page 13)


There is thus a strong argument to be made that parallels the idea of "contrast in musical Form" with the versatility of the Propers as they are influenced by the Lectionary or the Roman Catholic Liturgical Calendar that determines such special celebrations. Even if they are on a three-year Cycle, variable texts are nonetheless presented in juxtaposition alongside the otherwise usually consistent stagnant prayers and texts of the Liturgy. The way in which the "Ordinary Form" of the Liturgy contrasts most obviously with itself is between these variable components, and Catholics who are attentive in their worship are enlightened to these contrasts on the basis by which they attend Mass.


Of course, one must not hasten to generalizations regarding the "true" stoicism/stagnation of the Roman Missal; to say one liturgy is or has been 100% identical to another would be foolish and near-sighted. There are also some outstanding exceptions that embellish greatly the general Form of the Mass, such as the Easter Vigil, which consists of five parts in the Roman Rite liturgy. The Form is purposefully arranged differently so that "Holy Church [may meditate] on the wonders the Lord God has done for his people.... [until] the memorial of his Death and Resurrection until he comes again." It should be no surprise that, as would be the case with music, outlying exceptions to the Form serve that very purpose: to draw attention to their uniqueness in construction and difference from the provided norm. But, even within the Formal demands of the "greatest and most noble of all solemnities," certain texts of the Mass remain intact in their place.


Another consideration is that the Liturgy is first-and-foremost constructed in a way in that it allows for pastoral flexibility, taking into account many variable factors for any community: ethnicity, parish needs, or any number of specific social items. The celebrant's choice of Mass texts (or perhaps choosing between an already-prescribed set of Eucharistic Prayers) can be contingent on a great deal of sociological factors, such as the theme of the homily, a particular local observance/holiday, or another series of current events that may run as a complete non-sequitur to the Liturgical Calendar. One could be prudent in saying that this is arguably an additional set of "commentary" from the presider. Yet Liturgy commands that, from the conception of our Church, it be interpreted by the faithful in a way that is somehow assimilated to them as a people. There is surely an ever-complex, but inevitable, bias which can infiltrate the Liturgy: So in the augmentation of musical Form to a larger Form (like the Catholic Mass), we must keep in mind the "composite whole" of liturgies that are celebrated within any particular parish community — rather than assuming our "unity in structure" become jeopardized.

"[Parishioners] Praying inside Catholic Church." Downloaded from Dreamstime. Used for Educational Purposes.


After all, it is only plausible to say that our humanity affects our individual spiritual/musical participation in the Blessed Sacrament. What then comes into question is our role as worshipping Catholics and how it defines the integrity of the Ordinary Form. The 1958 document De musica sacra et sacra liturgia, or, "Instruction on Sacred Music and Sacred Liturgy" talks about the "participation of the faithful" in such a way, stating:


"The first way the faithful can participate in the low Mass [Novus Ordo] is for each one, on his own initiative, to pay devout attention to the more important parts of the Mass (interior participation), or by following the approved customs in various localities (exterior participation)..."


...where, from here, it continues on an important adversarial point:


"But all are not equally capable of correctly understanding the rites, and liturgical formulas; nor does everyone possess the same spiritual needs; nor do these needs remain constant in the same individual. Therefore, these people may find a more suitable or easier method of participation in the Mass when 'they meditate devoutly on the mysteries of Jesus Christ, or perform other devotional exercises, and offer prayers which, though different in [F]orm from those of the sacred rites, are in essential harmony with them...' "(Page 10, De musica sacra et sacra liturgia)


As participating and communicating beings within a structure, we understand that our contributions may not be in the realm of consistent nor perfect. And perhaps a consequent to the thoughts above is that variability, humanity, and diversity in style-of-mind affect the way we sing and participate in the Mass nonetheless. To paraphrase St. Augustine, "[we] must not allow [our]selves to be offended by the imperfect while [we] strive for the perfect." If we strive for the perfect, our enriched understandings of both the logical and humanistic elements of musical Form can be the missing ingredients that help us to better understand the unique Liturgy in which we participate.


And when we excavate into the relationship between all sections of a structure that at least somewhat repeats — especially within a hymn like ELLACOMBE, or even something as gloriously complex as our Catholic liturgy — we begin to realize that the study of Form is an intercessor between human and the Divine. This is, of course, not to say "perfect structures" override the importance and valor of the Liturgy, which can be celebrated imperfectly as we nonetheless aim for its perfection. Simply, our semi-conscious understanding of Forms, as lay-Catholics and perhaps even as non-musicians, can help us understand, more deeply, the value of our participation in the Christian Paschal Mystery.


The Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite is just one existing structure that is predisposed for us as Catholics. It is another (albeit more complex) vessel of structure with which we, as lay-people, engage when awakened by Form. When we are attentive to its internal beauty (as well as to its volatility), it enlightens us to that of which we are not aware. Through its active call to participation — which includes interspersions of meaningful hymn singing that engage, in a smaller iteration, this very concept of Form — we are guided to connect in worship with others. And surely, we are also concurrently guided to embrace the great litanies of scientific phenomena that occur when we engage with such Form.


If we exist alongside the Ordinary Form, we realize that the contributions of our fallible humanity in our worship are akin to those within the creation of our music — contributions that, while imperfect, guide us to contextualize and admire the perfection of these structures.


It can thus not be overstated that there is an intrinsic value in hymn singing that helps define the structure of the composite whole that is the Liturgy. A conclusion articulated also in Chapter 1 in Prof. Mahrt's writing complements the sentiments above:


"Some would object that [the aesthetics of music in liturgy] is art for art’s sake. I would answer that it is art for worship’s sake. That it is art means that on the most spiritual level it does what it intends to do, as nearly perfectly and beautifully as possible. That it is worship means that the music is not an end in itself, but rather that it takes its place as an essential component of the liturgical action, defining and specifying its character and shape." (Part 1: Page 16)

 

We began this journey together by discussing the bridge between the act of making music to an interpersonal science — one that puts our brain-waves, even the semi-conscious, in near-unison. We then discussed, more in detail, how the singing of hymns falls into this practice, utilizing such procedures our brain takes on while we participate in singing hymnody with other people. The conversation then continued as a deep dive into ELLACOMBE, the melody of "I Sing the Mighty Power of God" — a melody which is a perfect exemplar of this concept, yet has its own theoretical demands in Form that further edify the listener beyond just "breath" and "singing."

To summarize the few points we have then since discussed (using ELLACOMBE as our "agent"), we now know that when we sing hymns with others, our brains follow an impressive protocol:

  1. we breathe with other people in a way we normally don't,

  2. we allocate for ourselves, spatially, the shape of a melody,

  3. we encounter the structures nestled within the sections of such a melody,

  4. we understand overall structures of a fully composite Form, and—

  5. we apply our personal knowledge to further contextualize how we relate to such Forms.

In this, we realize Form is a vehicle for narratives that encapsulate our experience as humans. At its "source and summit" (1324 CCC), this includes the Form of the celebration of the Eucharist — the Ordinary Form of the Paschal Mystery of Christ; the Roman Catholic Liturgy.


In the most didactic and impersonal way one can put it, the dissection of hymn song unveils for us as Catholics that music and hymn singing are scientifically crucial to understanding the integrity of the Liturgy. The guidelines found within Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2007, call for the "full and active participation by all the people... before all else." Certainly, the singing of music, engaging with melodies, and willingness to be in the presence of Forms that have withstood millennia are catalysts that help bring us to better understand our spiritual participation in the Holy Eucharist. Singing during Mass can be the logical succession of the way we understand how to be human, and it is a manner by which we familiarize ourselves with the history of ourselves, our neighbor, and the miraculously complex structure of our Catholic faith.

 

AI Artwork generated by Dream.Ai with guided prompt. Title: "Choir singing together in spiritual communion. Music lifted to God." Melody of ELLACOMBE superimposed in post-production.

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