Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Easter and Pentecost Sequences

This article by Diana Macalintal first appeared in Eucharistic Ministries 240, March 2004.

Resurrection Kontakion“The Sequence, which is optional except on Easter Sunday and on Pentecost Day, is sung before the Alleluia” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 64).

At the beginning and end of the great Easter season, the faithful proclaim: “Death and life have contended in that combat stupendous: The Prince of life, who died, reigns immortal” (Easter Sequence); “Bend the stubborn heart and will; Melt the frozen, warm the chill; Guide the steps that go astray” (Pentecost Sequence). Yet since 1970, when the GIRM first required that these sequences be sung every year, these poetic texts have seldom been heard in parishes.

At one point in the church’s history, there were about five thousand sequences. Today, the church has retained four:
  • those for the solemnities of Easter,
  • Pentecost,
  • the Body and Blood of the Lord,
  • and the Stabat Mater for September 15, the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows.
As early as the 8th century, sequences appeared in the liturgical celebrations of France and soon spread throughout Europe. Prior to Vatican II, the liturgy of the word consisted of a reading from the epistles, a psalm called the “gradual” and a reading from the Gospels. The gradual ended with an “alleluia” in which the final syllable “ah” was sung over a very long series of notes, a technique called a melisma. This melisma was called sequencia or jubilus. The sequence developed as alternative texts replacing this “ah.” Later, other melodies and religious poems were composed to be separate pieces sung at any liturgical feast. The structure of these poems often lent itself to “antiphonal” singing (verses alternating between two choirs or between a soloist and choir). The texts were also often dramatic. The birth of miracle plays is usually attributed to the inspiration of the Easter Sequence, Victimae paschali laudes, in which Mary Magdalene is asked “Speak, Mary, declaring what you saw, wayfaring.” Her reply makes up the next three verses and the drama of the greatest miracle.
Today, the sequence is sung after the second reading, before the Alleluia. The texts for the four remaining sequences are found in the Lectionary while several melodies have been composed through the centuries for these texts. One particularly useful setting of the Easter and Pentecost sequences uses the tune O FILII ET FILIAE (“Ye sons and daughters”). This familiar tune allows not only the assembly to sing alternating verses with a cantor or choir, but also provides a smooth transition into the Gospel acclamation after the final verse during which the whole assembly stands for the procession of the Gospel book.

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