Volume 16, Issue 1: Musica
Gloria in Excelsis
"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 isthe 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 excelsisLux 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,
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."