A musical 'leap' at Easter

Easter Sunday is the pinnacle of the liturgical year, a day of great festivity and joy. As faithful Christians come to churches to worship God who has saved humanity through the passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, they encounter in the Church’s liturgy great beauty at every level: the liturgical space is decorated with colorful flowers, the vestments of the clergy are beautifully adorned, the sacramentals of fragrant incense and the sprinkling of holy water are used, and the music is triumphant and uplifting. It is a day when the Church celebrates with the highest degree of solemnity, a day when “extra beauty” is added to the liturgy.

An important piece of extra beauty in Easter Sunday liturgies is the sequence, the Victimae paschali laudes, a musical meditation on the paschal mystery, which is inserted between the second reading and the Gospel acclamation (Listen). Like the addition of flowers throughout a church to enhance the beauty of the liturgical space on Easter Sunday, the sequence is a “musical bouquet” that enhances the beauty of the proclamation of the Word of God. It is designed to help parishioners take extra time to meditate on something deeply profound and mysterious, the Resurrection, a mystery not meant to be rushed through, but thoughtfully pondered.

As a liturgical genre, the sequence has its origins in ninth-century Europe with a Benedictine monk, poet and musician, Notker Balbulus (840-912), who resided at the Abbey of St. Gall, Switzerland. Poetic musical compositions were created by Notker and others to help the laity participate in the celebration of the Mass and come closer to understanding the mysteries of faith. Over the next centuries, roughly 5,000 sequences were composed for different Masses of the year. At the Council of Trent (1545-63), this plethora of sequences was reduced to five, one of which was the Victimae paschali laudes for Easter Sunday.

Wipo (or Wigbert) of Burgundy (995-1048), the priest-chaplain to Emperor Conrad II, is generally considered as the composer of the Victimae paschali laudes, though there is some debate over this. The text was originally written in Latin, but has been translated into English in many contemporary hymnals. Unfortunately, the original essence and character of the text is lost in translation, as this sequence was designed to lyrically rhyme and blend together in the Latin language, united to the unique melody. Thus, while many musicians in today’s parishes will most likely turn to the English translations, serious consideration should be made to using the original Latin; a translation sheet of the sequence could be given to parishioners to assist with participation if parish hymnals do not provide this.

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Musically the sequence Victimae paschali laudes is very beautiful and engaging. In its original musical format, the notes of this sequence “leap” and “dance,” highly appropriate for a day of joy, Easter Sunday. While it can be sung by a cantor or even the whole congregation together, it seems that the original intention was to have the sequence sung antiphonally back and forth between two groups or between cantor and choir. This enhances the movement of “leaping” or “dancing” in the sequence, bringing out in a richer way the joy of Easter. Indeed, this is the origin of the liturgical use of the word “sequence” — sections of text sung by alternating persons or groups.

The text of Victimae paschali laudes is a brilliant summary of Easter. The first section focuses the people’s attention on the themes of faith surrounding Easter: resurrection, reconciliation and thanksgiving. The second section is a small dialogue between Mary Magdalene and the congregation: the people, in effect, “ask” Mary to tell the story of the Resurrection. Finally, the last words are a simple yet profound statement of the Lord’s resurrection and eternal reign. Even without music, the text is inspiring for personal prayer and meditation during the season of Easter.

While the singing of the Victimae paschali laudes is mandatory on Easter Sunday, it should not be viewed as a burden on the congregation, but an important part of the degree of solemnity of Easter as well as a beautiful means of engagement with the paschal mystery.

Father Nicholas Zientarski is a priest of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York. He is dean of seminarians and teaches sacramental theology at St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers, New York.