Glory in the highest

Katrina DowlingMusic2 Comments

Here is a moment in the liturgy in which we are joining with the song of angels! “Glory to God in the highest,” Gloria in excelsis, or Gloria for short (for another example of earthly and angelic song combining, see Holy, holy, holy). The first two lines of the Gloria are called the angelic hymn, because they are sung by angels to shepherds in Luke 2:14.

Annunciation to the Shepherds (Codex Egberti, Trier, 10th century)

Annunciation to the Shepherds (Codex Egberti, Trier, 10th century)

The remaining text of the Gloria was added very early in the life of the Church, and this expanded hymn of praise was traditionally sung in the mornings.

Glory to God in the highest
and peace to his people on earth.
Lord God, heavenly King,
Almighty God and Father,
we worship you,
we give you thanks,
we praise you for your glory.
Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father,
Lord God, Lamb of God,
you take away the sin of the world:
have mercy on us;
You are seated at the right hand of the Father:
receive our prayer.
For you alone are the Holy One,
you alone are the Lord,
you alone are the Most High,
Jesus Christ,
with the Holy Spirit,
in the glory of God the Father. Amen.

The Gloria is a doxology – a hymn that ascribes glory to God (more on doxologies in a later post!). The Gloria has been part of the liturgy since the early centuries of the Church. That means you will find it in hundreds of musical settings, alongside the other liturgical hymns such as the Kyrie (see Kyrie eleison and Kyrie eleison II) and Sanctus (see Holy, holy, holy). You might be familiar with elaborate and striking choral settings by Palestrina, Byrd, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and many other celebrated composers.

There’s a certain rightness in making a beautiful and intricate musical setting of a hymn that ascribes glory to God. But most of those settings require a trained choir. On the other hand, there are also settings that emphasise inclusiveness, allowing a whole congregation to sing together, in the spirit of the Gloria in the early Church – for example, Michael Dudman’s PARISH EUCHARIST setting for unison voices and organ (756 in the hymnbook Together in Song).

Dudman’s organ part is generally in 4-part texture, although it’s written idiomatically for the organ, rather than sounding like a chorale, and the top voice doubles the singers’ melody. The text setting is almost entirely syllabic (one note per syllable), which gives the song a very straightforward quality, rather like heightened speech. When we sing the Gloria from this setting, I feel not so much that we are struck by awe, nor lost among the transcendent, but rather that we are reciting our prayers together.

What’s your reaction to the Gloria in its various musical settings: simple, elaborate and bold? Do you like to sing some and listen to others? Which settings help you feel that you are entering into a heavenly song?

2 Comments on “Glory in the highest”

  1. I love this part of our church service, it expresses so clearly what I want to say in worship. I have longed to hear other versions by choirs, so that I could listen at home to begin my own quiet time. On Trinity Sunday at St Paul’s Geelong I heard a choir for the first time singing it. I was reminded of your words “bringing heaven and earth together”.
    Even though I can’t sing in tune I want to sing the words too.

    1. When I saw your response to the Sanctus I thought you might feel the same way about the Gloria! Here’s a tip for finding recordings of the Gloria by various composers: don’t just look for stand-alone settings of the Gloria, but look for settings of the Mass (might also appear as Missa or Messe in the work title). Almost all musical settings of the Mass include a Gloria. There are hundreds, if not thousands, to listen to, so enjoy sampling the variety…

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