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Volume 16, Issue 1: Musica

Gloria in Excelsis

Duck Schuler

"Glory be to God on high! And on earth peace, good will toward men." With these words the angels proclaimed the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. The news was so astounding and the announcement so brilliant that the shepherds had to go see this baby who was the Christ. After seeing the baby Jesus, they were so thrilled that they spread the good news to all the surrounding area. This was news that they could not keep to themselves.

Likewise, one of the most well known hymns of the church begins with this same pronouncement of the angels, the Gloria in excelsis. Traditionally sung immediately after the Kyrie eleison [see Cantus Christi 392], the Gloria in excelsis is a jubilant expression of the weight of sin lifted off each member of the congregation. It is the congregational response to the grace and mercy of our Lord who stoops down to pick us up, our Lord, who became a man like us. Tempted like us, but without sin so that He could take away our sin.
"We praise Thee, we bless Thee, we worship Thee, we glorify Thee, we give thanks to Thee for Thy great glory, O Lord God, heavenly King, God the Father Almighty. O Lord, the only begotten Son, Jesus Christ; O Lord God Lamb of God, Son of the Father, that takest away the sin of the world." The thanks and praise must pour forth from the mouth of God's people. It is the perfect hymn for the transition from confession to the ascension into God's heavenly throne room. Just as the trumpets and the cymbals signaled the beginning of the burnt offering and the subsequent singing in temple worship (2 Chronicles 29:25-27), so too the Gloria in excelsis signals our entrance into the courts of our God. "And all the congregation worshiped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded: and all this continued until the burnt offering was finished" (2 Chronicles 29:28).
". . . have mercy upon us. Thou that takest away the sin of the world, receive our prayer. Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father, have mercy upon us." We recognize who Christ is—the Lamb of God who takes away our sin. We maintain the Creator/creature distinction especially as we sing to Him. Yes, we have been lifted up off our knees and brought into His presence in the confession, but we remember our position before Him in thanks and humble adoration. This particular portion of the Gloria in excelsis reminds us of the pleading in the Kyrie eleison for mercy, and at the same time is a foretaste of viewing Christ in communion as the Lamb of God (see the Agnus Dei setting in CC 410 which is traditionally sung at communion). It is truly a hymn of redemption and expresses all the joy that accompanies it.
"For Thou only art holy; Thou only art the Lord; Thou only, O Christ, with the Holy Ghost, art most high in the glory of God the Father. Amen." This is doxology. The glory and praise that only He deserves are ascribed to the Triune God. The Gloria in excelsis is also commonly called the Greater Doxology as opposed to the Gloria Patri (known as the Lesser Doxology). The terms lesser and greater here only refer to length of text, not quality of text.
The Gloria in excelsis dates at its earliest known form from the early fourth century . The Greek text is found in the Apostolic Constitutions, VII, 47, where it is given as a "morning prayer." Thus it was not originally part of the Mass but part of one's morning devotions. Most likely the Gloria in excelsis dates from much earlier, and as Luther said, " It did not grow, nor was it made on earth, but it came down from heaven." The number of fourth-century variants suggest that it was of third-century or even perhaps second-century origin.
Tradition has it that the Gloria in excelsis came into the West via Hilary of Poitiers (d. 366) who found it during his exile in the East and translated it into Latin. It was introduced into the Mass by Pope Symmachus (498-514) who directed that it be sung every Sunday and on the feasts of martyrs. Since that time it has been a regular part of the ordinary [those parts of the worship that are the same each week] of the service except for penitential seasons_Advent and Lent.
CC has two musical settings of the Gloria in excelsis, one by Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585) and one by Regina H. Fryxell (1899-1993). The Tallis setting [CC 393] comes from his Dorian Service which was discussed in a previous Musica column. It is a metered setting with the lively sixteenth-century rhythms that are common to Tallis and composers like him. Although written for a choir, it works well for a congregation because of its predominantly homophonic texture. The challenge of learning this setting is well worth the effort.
The Fryxell setting [CC 396] is based on the hymn Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Ehr [CC 291] by Nicolaus Decius, a Lutheran pastor and friend of Martin Luther. He had based his chorale on the Gregorian paschal Gloria in excelsis—Lux et origo. Fryxell masterfully combines the chant style melody with a chorale style harmony to produce a beautiful setting of the Gloria in excelsis. Fryxell, an organist and professor of English and French at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois, spent ten years preparing the music for the second setting of the Lutheran worship service in the Service Book and Hymnal, (1958). The Lutherans abandoned her marvelous setting after twenty years when they introduced the Lutheran Book of Worship, (1978).1
When you sing the Gloria in excelsis, as most of the saints through history have, let your praise bring glory to our Savior who "takes away the sin of the world."

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