This Sunday, 15 May, we celebrate Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, when the promised Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles, which enabled them to preach the gospel to all nations.
As a church musician, it’s one of my favorite days of the liturgical year. The chants, hymns, motets, etc. connected with this feast are some of the finest in the vast repertory of sacred music. One of the reasons I enjoy Pentecost is because we sing a Sequence at Mass.
For the average or even occasional churchgoer, the Sequence may seem like an interruption or a diversion to the Mass. The Sequence, however, is not inconsequential. The Sequence, historically, is a liturgical hymn of the Mass (as opposed to a liturgical hymn of the Divine Office) and was sung before the proclamation of the Gospel. Over the course of the Middle Ages, a number of Sequences were written and sung at Masses. As with all sacred music, some of the Sequences were great and others were not so great. Length, musical quality, and theological content started to become questionable with many of the Sequences.
During the liturgical reforms of the Counter-Reformation in the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent decided to suppress the use of Sequences, with the exception of four: Victimæ Paschali (Easter), Veni, Sancte Spiritus (Pentecost), Lauda Sion (Corpus Christi), and Dies iræ (Requiem Mass). In 1727, Pope Benedict XIII restored the Sequence Stabat Mater for use on the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s retained all but the Dies iræ, which was sung at the Requiem Mass. It remains, however, as a hymn ad libitum, in the Liturgy of the Hours during the week before Advent.
The Sequence for Pentecost, Veni, Sancte Spiritus, is commonly attributed to Pope Innocent III (1189–1216). While it is customarily sung to a chant, it has been set to music by a number of composers, including Josquin, Palestrina, Lassus, Victoria, and Byrd.
Tomorrow, when you’re at Mass and the choir chants the Sequence, prayerfully reflect upon the poetry, the music, and the historical importance of the text and the music throughout the ages.