Music for Ascension Sunday

There are some who seek to remove all vernacular hymns and contemporary music from the Mass, and return to using only the Proper chants, preferably in Latin. There are others who may or may not even know what a Proper is, but even if they did they would prefer the modern practice of replacing them with hymns and songs in the local language.

You may know by now that I try to walk a thin line between these two positions. I’m a lover of both chant (in English and Latin) and contemporary music. Like the USCCB, I find there is a strong pastoral case for vernacular hymnody, but I also think that Sacrosanctum Conciliam has been wildly misinterpreted by those who have completely banished the music of our heritage from the Liturgy.

In my (sometimes) weekly song suggestions for Sunday, I normally suggest vernacular songs and hymns relating to the lectionary readings, as opposed to the Propers. I do this for two reasons:

  1. The vast majority of parishes in the US are doing vernacular songs and hymns, and those are the people I’m trying to help out.
  2. If you are doing the Propers, you don’t need suggestions. You just do the Propers.

But when thinking about the Ascension Sunday, I couldn’t help but think that chanted Propers would be a particularly fantasic choice given the nature of the Solemnity and the texts of the Lectionary, and I wanted to expound on that thought a bit, as it may provide one more opening for chanted propers to find a way into Liturgy at your parish.

The Ascension is an event in which the Apostles (and we with them) witness the marriage of Heaven and Earth as Jesus, in His living body, is lifted from this world to His Throne. The angels come to testify to this event, asking the twelve why they are standing there “looking at the sky.” The earthy heavenliness of unaccompanied chant provides a particularly apt aural framework for experiencing this event in our present time. The otherworldliness of Chant, especially Chant in Latin, is evocative of the voice of the angels (especially since the Introit and optional Offertory are both the words of the Angels).

Gregorian chant is unmetered, that is, there is no forward movement of rhythm (of harmony, for that matter). The musical effect of this is that Chant feels set apart from Time- we do not experience the passage of time with Chant the way we do in metered music. This characteristic of Chant evokes the words of Jesus in the first reading, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority.”

Another characteristic of Chant, it’s very nature as anonymously composed music of the Church (as opposed to music written by an indentifiable individual) evokes the epistle’s sanctuary not “built by human hands.”

If you are of a mind to do some Chant (or it’s close cousin, Sacred Polyphony), and have been trying to find a way to “work it in,” Ascension might provide the perfect opportunity. If your parish has never done the Propers, I wouldn’t suggest suddenly doing all of them. Since it it often the place for what the Protestants call “special music,” the Offertory is probably the best place to start. This would give you the opportunity to try out Chant in your community, and gauge its reception.

(Here is a recording of the Gregorian Offertory.)

Apart from the addition of chanted Propers, I don’t have much in the way of song suggestions for this Sunday. I highly recommend that you continue to carry forward songs from the Easter Vigil throughout the Easter season, so those choices will be very specific to your community (that’s why I haven’t been providing music selections for the Easter season- I plan to resume the practice with Ordinary Time).

If you are going to start using the Propers in Mass, I suggest you start with simple chant in English. The American Gradual or the Anglican Use Gradual are probably the best sources for chanted English propers. For the Latin chants, the English edition of the Gregorian Missal is a much more practical option than the Graduale Romanum, as it has English rubrics and translations (also, I’m currently unaware of a free, downloadable PDF version of the CURRENT Graduale Romanum).

If you are a bit more daring, and want to try some Polyphonic Propers, check out this index of Polyphonic Propers, assembled by Aristotle Esguerra. It is a growing listing of polyphonic settings of the Propers available free online. It looks to be all settings of the Latin text, and I am currently unaware of any major collection online of free polyphonic settings of the Propers in English.

2 thoughts on “Music for Ascension Sunday

  1. Hello, Adam. Coming over to your blog from the Musica Sacra forum, I find it quite interesting. I’ll be back. My own experience is very eclectic, so I have an appreciation for folks who like to cast a wide net musically.

Comments are closed.