There’s a fundamental concept in songwriting that the music should fit the words and vice versa. If you’ve ever seen those videos where people put fun children’s songs in a sad minor key or set a Taylor Swift song to rock music, you know there’s something really uncomfortable, albeit a little funny, about music that most certainly does not compliment the words. It’s cringeworthy. These are just the basics of songwriting. The mood of the music should match that of the words. But the Catholic Church takes extra care regarding this idea. So much of what we sing comes directly from scripture or from early Church writings, and these words are sacred. When we sing the Word of God, the melody can’t just be something trite or uninteresting, thrown together for the sake of having a singable ditty. The music can be simple or even repetitive, but it should be crafted with care because its job is to draw attention to the words. Music written for the Mass has the important duty of enshrining words that have been sung for thousands of years.
So back to the Gloria. If you travel even a little, you know that there are a lot of Glorias out there, and in a wide spectrum of styles. One particular church I attended near Interlochen (it’s always the Up North churches!) had a jazz style Gloria in which the pianist was sliding her thumb up and down the keyboard throughout. And you thought that only happened in movies! Most of us can spot a cheesy Gloria, or at least know when it’s hard to sing. But there are a few qualities that make a particular setting of the Gloria effective for worship, and they revolve around the following:
- What we’re singing: The Gloria is actually a hymn dating back to the 3rd century. The opening words are those of the angels at Christ’s birth: Gloria in Excelsis Deo! Glory to God in the highest! The rest of the words were originally used as a prayer in Greece and Syria, and then it was sung for the Easter Vigil. Eventually it was so well-loved that it was instituted for all Sunday Masses. The words are meant to put us in a spirit of awe, centering ourselves in a posture praising God from the very beginning of the Mass.
- Why we sing it: Theologians have written that God is within Himself a love song - The Father, Son, and Spirit sing their love to each other endlessly. Our existence is an invitation to join in that love song. Music makes that reality present. Music can ignite and foster faith in a unique way. The Gloria is one of the most powerful hymn expressions of that love and praise.
- How we sing it: All of this is to demonstrate that it matters how we sing the Gloria. This hymn has incredible historical roots and spiritual weight. There many Gloria settings out there that do a magnificent job of communicating the majesty of God. In those settings, the music is beautiful and centers around the singing, not the instruments. These settings should be somewhat easy to sing for congregational use, to encourage the most participation.
I wanted to share all this because we’ve been singing a new Gloria since October. As I’ve explained at Mass, it’s a different style. It’s a simple chant, and the reality is that the music itself isn’t incredibly exciting to sing. It’s a lovely melody, but the reason it’s so simple is to draw attention to the words themselves. Most of us have been singing the words of the Gloria since we could first speak, and there’s something beautiful about not having to worry about singing the music just right. Take away the complex melody, and you can really pray with the words at hand.
One of my favorite things about being Catholic is the rich depth of our traditions. But I know it’s easy to lose sight of the historical significance of the words we sing at Mass because we do it all the time. This is why new music for the Gloria can be so effective; it draws the words stored in the back of our brains into a new light. This brings us back to our original purpose, to give our whole hearts in praise of the God who is ever ancient, ever new. The idea seems lofty, but the reality is that this is all about relationship. God wants to show us love, and we have the awesome opportunity to sing that love back to Him. Glory to God!