Alleluia! Today as we celebrate Easter, we include a special piece of music, the sequence. In the Middle Ages it became expected practice at Mass to extend the music for the Alleluia to cover the time that it would take for the deacon to process from the altar to the ambo before proclaiming the Gospel. These extended melodies were called jubilus because of their joyful tone. Eventually, these melodies became long enough that people started to put words to them. In the ninth century, Notker Balbulus created a collection where he called them sequences perhaps because the words provided a way to memorize the sequence of notes or because these chants followed in order the alleluia.
After the Council of Trent, only four sequences were preserved in the liturgy: Victimae paschali laudes for today, Veni Sancte Spiritus for the feast of Pentecost, Lauda Sion for Corpus Christi, and Dies Irae for the Requiem Mass. In 1727, Pope Benedict XVIII added the Stabat Mater as the sequence for the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. The text for the Easter sequence often attributed to Wipo of Burgundy, an eleventh century priest and chaplain to the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II, but it has also been attributed to Notker Balbulus, Robert II of France, and Adam of St. Victor. It is uncertain if Wipo also wrote the melody.
While the most recent revision to the Roman Missal places the sequence before the Alleluia, singing the chant gives us an additional chance today to reflect on the resurrection. Notice how the lyrics tell the story of the empty tomb and prepare us to hear the Good News. As this song is only sung for the first week of Easter, it may not be so familiar to you, but as an expected part of the celebration of Easter, it is a staple that will return year after year.
Bulletin Notes for the Cathedral of Mary, Our Queen, April 5, 2015