Gloria in excelsis

Gloria in excelsis deo (Vatican IV, 10th century)
Gloria in excelsis deo (Vatican IV, 10th century)

The Gloria is an ancient non-biblical hymn composed of various phrases of differing dates and origins. Early on, it was an integral part of most celebrations of morning prayers (known as Matins or Lauds). According to the Liber pontificalis Pope Symmachus (498-514) introduced this hymn into the opening rites for the Mass on Sundays and major feast days. It is, therefore, most commonly known as one of the ordinary chants of the Mass.

The opening of the text recalls the words sung to God by the angels when they appeared to the shepherds in Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ nativity. For this reason, it is sometimes marked Laus angelorum in the manuscripts.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified….And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to people of good will.” (Luke 2: 8-9; 13-14)

The rest of the hymn is composed of various acclamations of praise and supplications for mercy. It ends with a trinitarian statement. The text of the hymn is:

Gloria in excelsis deo,
et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis
Laudamus te.
Benedicimus te.
Adoramus te.
Glorificamus te.
Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam.
Domine Deus, Rex caelestis, Deus Pater omnipotens.
Domine fili unigenite, Jesu Christe.
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius patris.
Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Qui tollis peccata mundi suscipe deprecationem nostram.
Qui sedes ad dexteram patris miserere nobis.
Quoniam tu solus sanctus.
Tu solus Dominus.
Tu solus Altissimus, Jesu Christe.
Cum Sancto Spiritu in gloria Dei Patris. Amen.

Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to people of good will.
We praise you.
We bless you.
We adore you.
We glorify you.
We give thanks to you for your great glory.
Lord God, Heavenly King, God Almighty Father.
Lord Only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ.
Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father.
You who take away the sins of the world have mercy on us.
You who take away the sins of the world hear our prayer.
You who sit at the Father’s right hand, have mercy on us.
For you alone are holy.
You alone, Lord.
You alone the Most High, Jesus Christ.
With the Holy Spirit in the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Unlike the hymn, Te deum laudamus, the Gloria was sung to a wide variety of melodies. Modern scholars have catalogued well over two hundred of them. The various styles employed for Gloria melodies may reflect different performance situations. Sometimes the entire congregation sang the Gloria, sometimes a choir or soloists. A few of the extant melodies are of a recitation style; others are through-composed melodies. And while some of the melodies appear to be excellent for congregational singing, others are so florid they appear to have been intended only for a choir or perhaps even soloists. Unfortunately, there is no way to date most of these melodies or the manner in which they were sung.

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