July 2019 Print

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: The Intermediary Chant

The Intermediary Chant

by Fr. Christopher Danel

The Gradual lies midway between the mournful Tract and the exultant Alleluia: it denotes the laborious and difficult pilgrimage of the children of God through life to their heavenly country. Therefore, at one time the Gradual is connected with the Tract, at another with the Alleluia, according as the sufferings and pains of penance or the consolations and hopes of future eternal rest predominate on our earthly pilgrimage. —Monsignor Nicholas Gihr


In this article we examine the Intermediary Chant, presenting the work of Monsignor Nicholas Gihr in his fundamental liturgical commentary The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: Dogmatically, Liturgically, and Ascetically Explained. Monsignor Gihr was a priest of Freiburg in Breisgau whose work of liturgical research took place during the time frame spanning the pontificates of Popes Pius IX to Pius XI, including that of Pope St. Pius X. The early years of his work were contemporaneous with the last years in the work of Dom Prosper Guéranger. (The English translation of his study appeared in 1902; the original is: Gihr, Nikolaus. Messopfer dogmatisch, liturgisch und aszetisch erklärt. Herder: Freiburg im Breisgau, 1877.)

The Chant

The Church has assigned to the choir the task of executing, in the name of the congregation, the various parts that are to be sung. These are very appropriately and skillfully inserted in the liturgy of the Mass, for sacred chant is productive of many edifying results; it makes divine worship more solemn and more majestic, elevates the mind, and exhilarates the heart. St. Augustine, in his Confessions, depicts the powerful impression made by the chant of the Ambrosian Hymns upon his soul: “How I wept, O Lord, amid Thy hymns and chants, greatly moved by the voices of Thy sweetly singing Church! They poured themselves into my ears, these voices, and like drops Thy truth penetrated my heart: the fervor of devotion was awakened, tears flowed, and ah, how happy I was then!”

The chant which follows the Epistle and precedes the Gospel is an intermediate and connecting link between these two biblical readings. Said intervening chant is of varied composition at the different periods of the ecclesiastical year, and accordingly bears different names. The Gradual at times occurs by itself alone; but for the most part it is connected with an addition, namely, the Minor Alleluia or the Tract. Sometimes the Gradual, or the Alleluia, or the Tract, is followed by the so-called Sequence.


The word Graduale comes from gradus, meaning step. To distinguish the Responsory that occurs between the Epistle and the Gospel from the Responsories of the Divine Office, it was called Graduale from the place in which it was sung: for the leading chanter who intoned the longer Psalm-chant after the Epistle stood on an elevated step, that is, on the same step of the Ambo from which the Epistle had previously been read.

The fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions already prescribe a chant of Psalms after the reading from the Old Testament. In the Antiphonarium of St. Gregory the Great this Psalm-chant is reduced to a few verses, as is now-a-days the case in our Missal. Even in its present abridgment the Gradual chant has preserved its previous responsory form; for it consists of two parts, the first retains the name Responsorium, the other bears the title of Versus. In most cases both parts are taken from the Psalms, not unfrequently passages from other books of the Old and New Testaments are used; only a few times do we meet with texts which are not from the Bible.

The readings and the chant harmonize with one another: in both the peculiarity of each ecclesiastical celebration is reflected, but in a different way. In the reading God descends to us and speaks to us; in the chant, on the contrary, we soar upwards to God. In the Gradual chant we give appropriate expression to the various impressions and resolutions which have been awakened in us by the Mass in general, as well as by the reading in particular. In a certain sense, then, we may say that the intermediate chant is an echo, a dying away sound of the Epistle and a suitable transition to the Gospel.


Alleluja emitte Spiritum tuum, Graduale Triplex


Minor Alleluia

It is only seldom that the Gradual is sung or recited alone, that is, on some ferial days in Lent; usually it has an appendix, which, according to the tenor of the ecclesiastical celebration, bears the impress of joy or of sorrow. Expressive of joy is the so-called Minor Alleluia, which is generally added to the Gradual throughout the year. It consists of two Alleluias, a verse and another Alleluia; hence it is often called the Alleluia verse (Versus Alleluiaticus). The verse, between the three Alleluias, is in its contents frequently not a mere continuation, but rather a clearer development and a more perfect expression of the thoughts contained in the Gradual. While the Church compiled the Gradual mostly always wholly from the Psalms, she did not adhere so strictly to this rule in the composition of the Alleluia Verse, but in its make-up often employed therein other Bible texts also: indeed and especially in Masses celebrated in honor of the saints, more than 30 of these verses are not taken from Scripture, but are of ecclesiastical origin. In this way it was easier to designate more minutely and to mark more distinctly the subject of the day’s celebration.


Tractus is a musical term; it relates primarily not to the contents, but to the manner of delivery, that is, to the peculiar, characteristic manner of singing it. All the verses were continuously sung by one singer, that is, without the choir interrupting him by responding, and this was done in a slow, protracted measure. (Tractus means the slow drawing or “protraction” of the words.) This uniform and measured way of chanting is, in contrast to the animated alternate singing of the Gradual and Alleluia Verse, evidently suited for the expression of holy sorrow and penitential sentiments. For this reason the Tract has replaced the jubilant Alleluia, and already become long ago the peculiar characteristic of Septuagesima and Lent. What the somber purple is to the eye on these days of earnest sorrow and penance, the touching chant of the Tract is to the ear a sigh of penitential grief.

The Tract is nearly always taken from Holy Scripture, especially from the Psalter; only seldom is it partly or wholly of ecclesiastical origin. Sometimes it is longer, at others shorter; it always comprises with but few exceptions more than two verses, on three occasions (on the first Sunday of Lent, Palm Sunday and Good Friday) almost an entire Psalm. The most sorrowful day of the year, Good Friday, has a double Tract, while at other times but one is used.

Major Alleluia

“After these things I heard, as it were, the voice of many multitudes in heaven, saying: Alleluia. Salvation and power and glory is to our God” (Apoc. 19:1). The Alleluia resounds in the liturgy principally from Holy Saturday until the Saturday after Pentecost; for this great octave of weeks is of a joyful nature throughout. The Alleluia is the outpouring of that grand Easter joy with which our hearts are filled to overflowing; it is the festive song, the exultant cry over the happiness and the glory of our Redemption.

What is the form of the Alleluia chant after the Epistle during Eastertide? While the Gradual is still retained during Easter-week, by an unusual custom, it is omitted on the Saturday before Low Sunday, and thenceforth until the feast of Holy Trinity two Alleluias are sung (as Antiphons) followed by two verses, each with an Alleluia. The Gradual as a wistful canticle is omitted at Eastertide, and the exuberant Alleluia is repeated almost without measure, to note that salvation has been won for us by the death and resurrection of Christ.


On certain days the Alleluia’s joyful praise or the mournful melody of the Tract continues to resound in a prolonged canticle, which is universally called the Sequence (Sequentia). How did the Sequences originate, and at what time were they inserted in the liturgy? Already before the ninth century it was customary to continue singing melodiously the last syllable of the Alleluia without any further text. In the ninth century various hymnal verses began to be set to these joyful airs, and to them the name Sequence was then transferred. Such religious poems were extensively circulated; they increased to the extent that (exclusive of Septuagesima time) every Sunday and almost every feast had a Sequence. The Roman Missal as revised after the Council of Trent has retained but five Sequences, which serve to distinguish particular feasts. The five Sequences of our Missal belong incontestably to the most glorious and most sublime creations of the hymnology of the Church.

The Easter Sequence Victimae paschali, which in the Middle Ages found numerous imitations, is a dulce canticum dramatis, a sweet dramatical chant, in the form of a dialogue that sings the praises of the glorious Resurrection of the Savior. Death and life struggled together, engaged in a marvelous combat: the Prince of Life, who had died, reigns in the imperishable life of glory. Then Mary Magdalene is appealed to as an eye-witness of the Resurrection, and she is questioned. She testifies to the Lord’s Resurrection: “I saw the tomb of the living one and the glory of the Resuscitated; as witnesses of this, I beheld the angels, the napkin and the linen cloths.” And triumphantly she adds: “Christ, my hope, is risen,” and she announces to the Apostles that the Risen One will go before them into Galilee.

The Sequence for Pentecost, Veni sancte Spiritus is an ardent and devout supplication to the Holy Ghost, in which, on the one hand, His mysterious, blissful imparting of grace is depicted in a manner uncommonly tender and charming, and, on the other hand, the indigence of our earthly pilgrimage is represented in a manner exceedingly simple and touching. The Holy Ghost is called by the Church “the finger of God’s right hand,” that is, the Treasurer and Dispenser of all the gifts and graces which Christ has merited for us. But He not only donates to our poverty His riches, but He comes Himself and dwells in a sanctified soul as in His living temple.

The Lauda Sion is the Sequence for the feast of Corpus Christi, composed by St. Thomas Aquinas. One of the most useful literary productions of St. Thomas in which the Church even now takes great delight is the Office of the Blessed Sacrament, which Pope Urban IV engaged St. Thomas to compose on the occasion of the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi. Not only are the psalms and antiphons, lessons and responsories chosen by him replete with the most beautiful and fruitful references to the mystery of the Altar, but also the hymns composed by him, as the Pange lingua, Sacris Solemniis, Verbum supernum and Lauda Sion, are full of fervor and devotion and pearls beyond price in the hymnal treasury of the Church.

How touching, how affecting is the Stabat Mater, this doleful lamentation on the Sorrowful Mother of God! At first the Sequence depicts the overwhelming anguish and indescribable compassion of the Virgin Mother with the bitter sufferings and death of her divine Son; she had to become the Mother of Sorrows, because her Son was the Man of Sorrows. She stood at the foot of the Cross wholly plunged in grief (dolorosa) and bathed in tears (lacrymosa), while her Son was shedding all His blood on the Cross; but she stood there as the valiant woman and as the Queen of Martyrs (stabat).

The grandest hymn of the Church is the chant for the funeral rites, the Dies irae. As to contents and form this hymn is a perfect work of art; the judgment of all specialists designates it as the most sublime composition that human genius ever produced in this style of poetry. The terrors of the general judgment are depicted in this chant for the dead in lines of such sublimity and grand simplicity that the soul feels penetrated with the woes and dread of the day of tribulation. The soul implores: “Think, kind Jesus, my salvation caused Thy wondrous Incarnation; leave me not to reprobation. Faint and weary Thou hast sought me, on the Cross of suffering bought me; shall such grace in vain be brought me?” The concluding petition is for all the faithful departed: “O good Lord Jesus, give rest unto them—Pie Iesu, dona eis requiem.”


If we compare the varied form and composition of the chant intervening between the Epistle and Gospel, we cannot but admire with what refined delicacy the Church understands how to indicate and set forth the manifold dispositions and shades of the soul’s interior life, from the most profound sorrow to the height of joy as is evident from the contents as well as from the form and melody of the pieces of chant chosen by her. And thus, the soul becomes ever more worthily prepared and disposed to receive the word of God which will be announced in the Gospel.