Sunday, March 09, 2008

On the Origins and the Purpose of the Sequence

It must have been difficult remembering all the chants of the liturgical year back in the days before they were written down. Seemingly, the melismatic interlectionary chants would be the most challenging on one's memory. Historians have claimed that, in order to remember the jubili of the wonderful Alleluias, the chanters added words. Gradually this practice evolved to the point that entirely new pieces of music were introduced into the liturgy. These became what are now known as the sequences (from the Latin "sequentia," meaning "to follow," as in following the Alleluia).

Many of the sequences were removed from the liturgy in the sixteenth century--a development that has been both praised and lamented by various experts and certain opinionated bloggers (???). The five that remain for our use in the Roman Rite (there are variances among the diverse liturgical uses of the West) are all gems, and it is hard not to be excited when one of them comes up in the liturgical calendar. The next one, of course, is the sequence for Easter Sunday, Victimae paschali laudes.

How should the sequence fit into the fabric of the liturgy? In pursuing this question, it is important to look at these chants idiomatically. Recall the point that has been elucidated by a number of musicians, most notably Professor William Mahrt of Stanford University. The various chants of the liturgy, by virtue of their musical properties, help to express the meaning or the purpose of the various liturgical actions:

--The introit, with not too many notes per syllable ("neumatic"), musically suggests the movement of a procession, and indeed it accompanies the opening procession. (This would seem to be something that needs to be rectified in the Traditional Mass--but that is a digression for another day.) The same is true of the Communion antiphon.

--The interlectionary chants (Gradual, Tract, Alleluia) have many notes per syllable ("melismatic"). This slows down the rate at which the text is recited, making it more suitable for meditation.

--The Offertory antiphons are hybrids of the preceding two examples. While it is a procession, it is also a time for recollection in preparation for the most sacred part of the liturgy.

--There is another idiom I would like to mention, which though it lies outside the Mass, has implications for our considerations: the processional (e.g., Puer natus in Bethlehem). These chants are, of course, meant to accompany processions and are largely syllabic; that is, generally one note is sung per syllable.

With all of this in mind, let's consider the musical characteristics of the various sequences. Generally it would seem most appropriate to call them syllabic. There are also a few neumatic sections, but not a great number. This would identify the sequence most closely with the introit and Communion chants and especially the processional chants. This means that, aside from the fact that the sequence comes after the Alleluia, the music itself tells us that the sequence is a processional chant. This is when the Gospel procession should take place.

However, this leaves many of our Ordinary Form readers in a bit of a lurch, since the U.S. Bishops Conference (and perhaps some others, too) have arbitrarily placed the sequence before the Alleluia. [Update: Upon further investigation it appears as though this practice has now been adopted Church-wide and enshrined in the 2002 GIRM in paragraph 64. The 1975 GIRM, however, makes no mention of this, and in fact it discusses the sequence after discussing the Alleluia, implying the order in which the liturgy is to progress.] Opinion is divided on how rigidly this rule is to be followed, but it would unfortunately seem difficult to persuade many that the age-old custom bears any weight whatsoever.

This arbitrary decision absolutely destroys the sensible flow of the liturgy. So often this piece of poetry is treated by parishes with no small amount of annoyance. Little wonder, since it's in the wrong place. In such a situation its purpose becomes obscured, to say the least, and it begins to feel like a mere interruption. Since this practice divorces the sequence from its purpose as a processional chant, and since the structure of the interlectionary chants is also destroyed thereby, the sequence loses much of its beauty, as proportion and form figure greatly into this equation. It should also be realized that, in the case of the Easter sequence, its content is very much related to the Gospel of the day; it would only make sense to have it next to the Gospel chronologically.

With today's over-emphasis on didacticism, these concerns might well be quickly and unceremoniously dismissed. But what about the ability of beauty to teach us? Does beauty have nothing to say to us? What about the drama that unfolds as the chorus, through the sequence, tells us part of the Easter story, not too unlike the choruses of the ancient Greek dramas, as the Gospel procession makes its pilgrimage to the empty tomb?

It seems to me that this subject needs to be revisited, since tradition, proportion, and common sense are being opposed by positive law.

One more consideration: it seems best to avoid strophic hymn settings of the sequence, as this does not really convey the structure of the original chant melody. If it cannot be done in Latin, one might wish to consult the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), which has a reasonably good setting of the sequence in English, set to the original melody.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: