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The word "Alleluia" or "Hallelujah" (from Hebrew הללו יה), which literally means "Praise ye Yah" or "Praise Jah, you people", is used in different ways in Christian liturgies. "Praise Jah" is a short form of "Praise Yahweh", or of "praise ye Jehovah".
In the spelling "Alleluia", the term is also used to refer to a liturgical chant in which that word is combined with verses of Scripture, usually from the Psalms. This chant is commonly used before the proclamation of the Gospel.
The Hebrew word Halleluya as an expression of praise to God was preserved, untranslated, by the Early Christians as a superlative expression of thanksgiving, joy, and triumph. Thus it appears in the ancient Greek Liturgy of St. James, which is still used to this day by the Patriarch of Jerusalem and, in its Syriac recension is the prototype of that used by the Maronites. In the Liturgy of St. Mark, apparently the most ancient of all, we find this rubric: "Then follow Let us attend, the Apostle, and the Prologue of the Alleluia."—the "Apostle" is the usual ancient Eastern title for the Epistle reading, and the "Prologue of the Alleluia" would seem to be a prayer or verse before Alleluia was sung by the choir.
In the Roman Rite, the word "Alleluia" is associated with joy and is especially favoured in Paschal time, the time between Easter and Pentecost, perhaps because of the association of the Hallel (Alleluia psalms) chanted at Passover. During this time, the word is added widely to verses and responses associated with prayers, to antiphons of psalms, and, during the Octave of Easter and on Pentecost Sunday, to the dismissal at the end of Mass ("Ite missa est").
On the other hand, the word "Alleluia" is excluded from the Roman liturgy during Lent and, in earlier forms of the Roman Rite, during Septuagesima. In those earlier forms, the word was also excluded in Masses for the Dead. In those periods, the word was replaced, in particular after the Gloria Patri at the beginning of each Hour of Divine Office, by the phrase "Laus tibi, Domine, rex aeternae gloriae" (Praise to thee, O Lord, king of eternal glory). In the present normal form of the Roman Rite, the word is simply omitted.
The term "Alleluia" is used also to designate a chant beginning and ending with this word and including a verse of Scripture, in particular for such a combination sung before the proclamation of the Gospel as an expression of greeting and welcome to the Lord who is about to speak in the Gospel to those taking part.
In traditional Gregorian chant, this responsorial chant opens with the cantor singing "Alleluia", after which the choir repeats it, and adds a long melisma on the final vowel (called a "jubilus"). (The Liber Usualis notates the repeat with the Roman numeral "ij" and continues with the jubilus.) The cantor then sings the main part of the verse, and the choir joins in on the final line. At the end of the chant, the opening Alleluia is repeated, but instead of the choir repeating the word, they repeat only the jubilus. When a Sequence follows the Alleluia, this final repeat is omitted, as it was in other cases in the Middle Ages. The musical style of a plainchant Alleluia is generally ornate, but often within a narrow range. The Alleluia for Christmas Eve, for instance, has an ambitus of only a perfect fifth, but this example is rather extreme. Alleluias were frequently troped, both with added music and text. It is believed that some early Sequences derived from syllabic text being added to the jubilus, and may be named after the opening words of the Alleluia verse. Alleluias were also among the more frequently used chants to create early organa, such as in the Winchester Troper.
The Roman Rite Mass, as revised in 1969, envisages participation by all the people present, with the choir or the cantor introducing the Alleluia and singing the accompanying verse or verses — even a whole psalm - but with the general body of the faithful repeating the Alleluia itself to music with a less elaborate melodic line than in the plainchant setting. The verse or verses can be those given in the Lectionary for Mass, or can be taken from Roman Gradual. If singing is not used, the Alleluia and its verse may be omitted rather than being merely recited.
In the time or times when the word "Alleluia" is excluded from use in the liturgy (Lent and, in earlier forms of the Roman Rite, Septuagesima), the pre-Gospel chant either replaces the word "Alleluia" with another acclamation (in the present normal form of the Roman Rite), or (in earlier forms) is itself replaced by a Tract, while, on the other hand, those earlier forms of the Roman Rite replace the Gradual with an Alleluia chant during Eastertide, thus putting not one but two such chants before the Gospel reading.
In the Eastern Orthodox and Greek-Catholic Churches, after reading the Apostle (Epistle) at the Divine Liturgy, the Reader announces which of the Eight Tones the Alleluia is to be chanted in. The response of the choir is always the same: "Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia." What differs is the tone in which it is sung, and the stichera (psalm verses) which are intoned by the Reader.
The Alleluia is paired with the Prokeimenon which preceded the reading of the Apostle. There may be either one or two Alleluias, depending upon the number of Prokeimena (there may be up to three readings from the Apostle, but never be more than two Prokeimena and Alleluia).
In the Russian/Slavic order, the Alleluia is intoned in one of the two following manners, depending upon the number of Prokeimena (The Antiochian/Byzantine practice is slightly different):
Among the Orthodox, the chanting of Alleluia does not cease during Lent, as it does in the West. This is in accordance with the Orthodox approach to fasting, which is one of sober joy. During the weekdays of Great Lent and certain days during the lesser Lenten seasons (Nativity Fast, Apostles' Fast, and Dormition Fast), the celebration of the Divine Liturgy on weekdays is not permitted. Instead, Alleluia is chanted at Matins. Since this chanting of Alleluia at Matins is characteristic of Lenten services, Lenten days are referred to as "Days with Alleluia."
The Alleluia at Matins is not related to scripture readings or Prokeimena; instead, it replaces "God is the Lord..." It is sung in the Tone of the Week and is followed by the Hymns to the Trinity (Triadica) in the same tone (see Octoechos for an explanation of the eight-week cycle of tones).
"God is the Lord..." would normally be intoned by the deacon, but since the deacon does not serve on days with Alleluia, it is intoned by the priest. He stands in front of the icon of Christ on the Iconostasis, and says:
Alleluia is also chanted to a special melody at funerals, memorial services (Greek: Parastas, Slavonic: Panikhida), and on Saturdays of the Dead. Again, it is chanted in place of "God is the Lord...", but this time is followed by the Troparia of the Departed.
The Alleluia is intoned by the deacon (or the priest, if no deacon is available):
On Saturdays of the Dead, which are celebrated several times throughout the year, the prokeimenon at Vespers is also replaced with Alleluia, which is chanted in the following manner:
Gospel readings are appointed for other services as well, particularly those in the Trebnik. A number of these are preceded by an Alleluia, in the same manner as that chanted at the Divine Liturgy, though sometimes there are no stichera (psalm verses).
During the Sacred Mystery (Sacrament) of Baptism, in addition to the Alleluia before the Gospel, the choir also chants an Alleluia while the priest pours the Oil of Catechumens into the baptismal font.