Sequences

If you get distracted you might miss it, the beautiful Easter Sequence Victimae Paschali Laudes. It’s a mere eighteen lines long and usually, no matter the tempo, it’s over in about a minute and a half. Then you will need to wait until next year to hear it again – the Church allows this hymn only from Easter Sunday through the octave thereof, inclusively. For me, it is the highlight of all the chant I hear the year round. Another Sequence, just a bit longer, which many think of still greater beauty, is the Veni Sancte Spiritus (may be the work of Pope Innocent III), sung only at Pentecost and again, through the octave of Pentecost.

There are five Sequences – these include Lauda Sion Salvatorem, written by St. Thomas Aquinas for the feast of Corpus Christi and Dies Irae, attributed to the friend of St. Francis of Assisi, Thomas of Celano, for the Requiem Mass. The Stabat Mater, sung on Friday in Passion Week and again on September 15th, the Feast of Mary of the Seven Sorrows, is the fifth one. If I’m not mistaken, the Novus Ordo retains only the Easter and Pentecost Sequences although frequently you hear them recited rather than sung.

By a rough calculation, you can trace the first Sequences to the ninth century. They became widespread by the tenth, and were at their zenith in the fourteenth century. Gathered into collections, in some places, their popularity eclipsed Gregorian chant. Each Sequence has its own characteristics, depending on its author and time of composition, but there are a few commonalities. Unlike hymns, which properly speaking you find in the breviary, these chants are not primarily poems. Rhyme does occur in some, especially the Veni Sancte Spiritus, where every third line of the Latin ends in ium. The melody is generally not repeated. Each stanza or couplet of stanzas enjoys it own. All are designed for back and forth choir singing, with the telling of a dogmatic truth as the goal, rather than an offering of praise.

The real beauty of the Sequences lies in their simple music and the concrete ways these occasionals bring home to us the profound truths of the Faith. Their strategic inclusion at major feasts draws us into the seasonal cycle of the Church, itself reflective of the life of Christ. Like much of the Mass, they remind us of the centuries-old practices of believers long forgotten.

Thus, at Easter we remember that Christ the Lamb has ransomed us, sinners all, and reconciled us to His Father. The Magdalene did truly see the sepulcher of the Risen Christ – Angels did witness His Resurrection. Now we believe and affirm these truths – now we beg for mercy.

Or consider, from Lauda Sion:

 Lo! Beneath the species dual

(Signs not things), is hid a jewel.

Far beyond creation’s reach!

Though His Flesh as food abideth,

And His Blood as drink – He hideth

Undivided under each.

What could be more instructive or clear? Similarly, the Holy Ghost, whom our Veni Sancte Spiritus implores to come, will truly grant the sevenfold gifts of grace so that we may die in peace and rest forever in joy before His face. With the Stabat Mater we beg to join in Mary’s sufferings just as she joined in Christ’s: At the Cross her station keeping, stood the mournful Mother weeping … make me feel as thou hast felt. And nothing quite captures the urgency in contemplating the final judgment like the words of the Dies Irae during a Requiem Mass:

O just, avenging Judge, I pray,

For pity take my sins away,

Before the great accounting-day.

I groan beneath the guilt, which Thou

Canst read upon my blushing brow;

But spare, O God, Thy suppliant now.

There is so much more to know, especially if you have an interest in music and its history or are curious about the development of the Mass.

5 Responses to “Sequences”


  1. 1 Ruben Vidal March 12, 2010 at 16:44

    There was a time when Catholics were buried at a Requiem Mass. The priest wore black vestments, signifying mourning. Traditional Latin chants were solemn and magnificent, the Introit, Requiem aeternam, asking for eternal rest; the Sequence, Dies Irae, where one trembles at the thought of the Last Judgment; and the celestial In Paradisum, where martyrs greet the deceased and a choir of angels receives him. Many classical composers over the centuries have set those texts for the concert stage, so impressive are they.

    There is perhaps no more lovely “sending off” than the In Paradisum: “May the angels lead you into paradise, may the martyrs receive you in your coming, and may they guide you
    into the holy city, Jerusalem. May the chorus of angels receive you and, with Lazarus once poor, may you have eternal rest …..”. The setting in the Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem always leaves me with moist eyes (Gabriella’s got it in her right column under Just Heavenly). The Gregorian Chant melody is not difficult. I am on a mission to restore this lovely text to Catholic funerals!

    But what did they sing at my friend’s father’s funeral recently? “Anytime you say it with heart – Anytime you’re falling apart – When you’re washing the sheets – Any stranger you meet – When there’s somebody waving goodbye – You’re coming home to me, just remember – You’re coming home to me …..” : a tune with a beat! Much easier to rock to!

  2. 2 Marcie March 13, 2010 at 08:25

    Very instructive post. The even more ancient hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus (Come Holy Ghost, Creator blest) is frequently sung on Pentecost. The verses are ascribed to Rabanus Maurus (776-856), and were set to a chant tune. These Latin verses have been translated into English verse in various versions, including the familiar hymn, “Come Holy Ghost, Creator blest”, a 19th century rendering by Edward Caswall (1814-1878), who also did a translation of the Veni Sancte Spiritus. (“Ghost” is another English word for “Spirit”, stemming from the German “geist”, while “spirit” is from the Latin.)

  3. 3 Vicki March 13, 2010 at 08:25

    Learning Latin, like working through long division and playing chess, involves multi-level thinking that is very good for the development of the intellect. It also gives students a better understanding of language and grammar, develops their vocabulary and can be extremely beneficial in recognizing medical and scientific terminology (even a trip to the zoo can be an opportunity for students to appreciate their Latin skills as they recognize some of the scientific names for the animals). For us Catholics too, Latin has special meaning as it is the official language of the Church. It is good thing for young Catholics to learn to love and begin to understand the wealth of beautiful hymns, chants and prayers that are part of our cultural and religious heritage.

  4. 4 Cinzia March 13, 2010 at 09:56

    Beautiful Gabriella! I am very very interested in the history of the development of the Mass. You are going to write more and more about it, aren’t you? 🙂 This blog is where I learn stuff!

    Vicki, a wonderful thought, yours. But who, these days, learns Latin? The Catholic Church today is not interested in teaching its rich, cultural and religious heritage to the young or to anyone for that matter.

    I have tried countless times to get a parish in my neighbourhood to re-introduce the Latin Mass at least once a month to start with and invariably I get the same answers: “But no one would understand the Mass?” and “who would come to a Latin Mass? Only a couple of people.” and so on to that tune ….

    I have written to the Archbishop of Melbourne and although he does support the Tridentine Mass, he is not interested in what most suburban parishes are doing … there are only two churches in his entire diocese that offer weekly Latin Mass – and I believe it is the same couple of priests who commute from one church to the other … all other priests I have approached are well and truly uninterested – have never learnt Latin themselves, not even the Latin Rite of Mass … they wouldn’t have a clue what to do or say and don’t want to learn.

    Therefore I believe your wonderful thoughts are like “chasing the wind.” 😦

    With the introduction of the Novus Ordo most of the heritage and beauty of such things as the Sequences has been all but destroyed.

  5. 5 Mary Nicewarner March 13, 2010 at 18:30

    My favorite sequence is Stabat Mater, who could fail to be moved by the sufferings and sorrows of Our Lady?
    Pro peccatis suae gentis
    Vidit Jesum in tormentis,
    Et flagellis subditum

    I know…I didn’t add the inflection marks because I can’t find them🙂

    Bruised, derided, cursed, defiled,
    She beheld her tender Child,
    All with bloody scourges rent

    Which gave me a good idea, I’m going to use this sequence for my Rosary meditation today. We are blessed to have such richness and beauty in our hands. It is a great grace to be Catholic!


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