Much of the information in this post is extracted from and expanded from “Queen of Heaven Rejoice, Alleluia!”–Regina Coeli: Part I: Beyond “Salve Regina,” which was the first of a series of Deep Down Things posts I wrote about the Marian antiphons. The information is being presented separately here to serve as a standalone introduction to antiphons in general and to Marian antiphons in particular. Also, while the previous introductory material described the Marian antiphons as they are prayed according to the traditional Breviary, this version includes more information on how the antiphons may be sung in the new Liturgy of the Hours.
Many Catholics know how to sing the hymn, “Salve Regina” (“Hail Holy Queen”) but most are less familiar with three other great Marian hymns that have traditionally been sung during the different seasons of the liturgical year: “Alma Redemptoris Mater,” “Ave Regina Caelorum,” and “Regina Coeli.”
The seasonal hymns to Our Lady are usually referred to as Marian antiphons.
Because I can’t explain everything here, I’ve linked many terms that may not be understood by everyone, usually to articles in The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913. If you see a term that you don’t understand, click on it, and you can read up about it on your own, if you are so inclined.
What’s an Antiphon?
The text of an antiphon typically consists of one or more verses from the Psalms or from other parts of Holy Scripture. Rarely, a text is not from Scripture. In The Catholic Encyclopedia, the article about the “Introit” of the Mass gives this example of a rare case where the antiphon was taken from a poem: “‘Salve, sancta parens*,’ from the Christian poet Sedulius, is the antiphon used in the Tridentine form of the Roman Rite for common Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
An antiphon is typically either chanted or recited before and after a Psalm or a Canticle. During most of the Hours of the Divine Office, antiphons are usually prayed before and after complete (or almost-complete) Psalms and Canticles.
Each Mass also has Antiphons for the Introit (Entrance), the Offertory, and the Communion, but the Mass antiphons are commonly prayed with only one or a few Psalm verses. These and other variable parts of the Mass that are assigned to specific days of the liturgical year are called the Propers.
Introit Antiphon Example
The Introit (which means “he enters”) can serve as a good illustration of some of the changes over the millennia to how the Mass antiphons were prayed. In the early Church, Psalms of David were sung before the start of Mass while the priest was processing towards the altar, and the antiphon was sung after every verse of the Introit Psalm. Eventually, the rubrics were changed so that the antiphon was repeated after every second, third, or fourth verse, and ever since the Council of Trent, the antiphon has been usually sung only twice, before and after the Psalm or Canticle.
Currently, the Introit is made up of an antiphon and single Psalm verse that are sung together at the beginning of the Mass. Note that in the Ordinary Form of the Mass that was introduced in 1969, the Introit is called the Entrance Antiphon, but the rules are the same.
All antiphons sung during the Divine Office and the Mass are “Proper” to the season, which means that they change according to the feast or the season of the liturgical year. The thoughts and emotions expressed in the words of an antiphon — and in its melody (when it is chanted)– evoke the liturgical and mystical meaning of the verses that the antiphon accompanies.
The beginning antiphon can be seen as a kind of prelude that prepares the hearers to understand the meaning of the verse or verses in the day’s liturgy, and then when the antiphon is repeated afterwards, it also serves as a kind of summary.
How Sundays of the Year Get Their Names
Another interesting thing to realize is that many Masses are referred to by a name that comes from the first word of the Introit/Entrance antiphon of the day. This ancient naming convention is derived from how documents were identified before titles were used. This method of naming continues in how the names of papal documents, such as “Dei Verbum” and “Summorum Pontificum,” are taken from their first few words in Latin.
For one example of how Sundays are named, Laetare Sunday, the fourth and middle Sunday of Lent, is so named because “Laetare Jerusalem” (meaning “Rejoice, O Jerusalem”) are the first words in the Introit for the day. Both the Introit and the name applied to the Sunday match the tone of that Sunday, because the Church celebrates that Lent is halfway over by relaxing some of the Lenten restrictions, such as changing the color of the vestments from violet to rose, and allowing organ music and flowers on the altar for that one Sunday.
Example Introit/Entrance Antiphon
Let’s take a look at the Introit for the 3rd Sunday after Easter (Extraordinary Form) to see a good illustration of several of these concepts. In the liturgy for the Sundays after Easter, the Church is continuing the celebration of the Easter Resurrection, and so all Introits of the Pascal season begin with joyful acclamations. The antiphon for the 3rd Sunday after Easter begins with “Jubilate Deo,” which means, “Shout with joy to God.”
From the first word in the Latin antiphon comes the name “Jubilate [pronounced Yoo-bee-LAH-tay] Sunday.”
The theme of rejoicing is also emphasized by the three alleluias that end the Introit antiphon. The word “alleluia” (from Hebrew הללו יה) is an exultant cry of joy, with a literal meaning of “Praise ye Yah,” or “Praise ye the Lord.”
Because all of the Roman Church abstains from alleluias all throughout Lent, the return of the alleluias is in itself a cause for joy. In the Extraordinary Form, the fast from alleluias starts even earlier on Septuagesima Sunday, three Sundays before the first Sunday in Lent. (See “Singing Goodbye to the Alleluia | Living the Septuagesima Season.”)
The Easter Introit breaks the alleluia fast with three alleluias, and the veritable feast of alleluias continues in the Introits for all the Sundays in Eastertide, which is also called Pascaltide), until Pentecost.
On the 3rd Sunday after Easter, the antiphon and its three alleluias are followed by verse 3 from Psalm 66: “Say unto God, How terrible are thy works, O Lord! in the multitude of thy strength thy enemies shall lie to thee.” The minor Doxology is then prayed.
Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto,
Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
As it was in the beginning, both now, and always, and to ages of ages. Amen.
And then the antiphon is repeated.
Antiphon: Jubilate Deo, omnis terra, alleluia: psalmum dicite nomini ejus, alleluia: date gloriam laudi ejus, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
(Psalm 65:3) Dicite Deo, quam terribilia sunt opera tua, Domine. In multitudine virtutis tuae mentientur tibi inimici tui.
(Doxology) V. Gloria Patri . . .
Antiphon: Jubilate Deo, omnis terra . . .
Antiphon: Shout with joy to God, all the earth, alleluia: sing ye a psalm to His Name, alleluia: give glory to His praise, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
(Psalm 65:3) Say unto God: How terrible are Thy works, O Lord! In the multitude of Thy strength Thine enemies shall lie to Thee.
(Doxology) V. Glory be to the Father . . .
Antiphon: Shout with joy to God . . .
In the Ordinary Form, the feast is called the 3rd Sunday of Easter (instead of the 3rd Sunday after Easter). The music for the Entrance Antiphon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter may be found in Latin in the little known Graduale Romanum, which provides the chants for every day of the year in the Ordinary Form calendar, in Latin with English translations. (The Graduale Romanum is currently used by those rare choirs such as the St. Ann Choir that sing Latin Gregorian Masses in the Ordinary Form.)
Usually, Ordinary Form Masses are celebrated in English. Recently, a lot of excellent work has been done by various Church musicians and groups to create books that make available approved English versions of the texts and chant for the Propers in the Ordinary Form. You can find more information about what the various parts of the Mass (Ordinary and Propers) are and when they should be sung in “Propers of the Mass Versus the Four-Hymn Sandwich.”
Following is the Entrance antiphon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter from the Simple English Propers:
Shout Joyfully to God all the earth alleluia;
sing a psalm to His name, alleluia;
praise him with magnificence, alleluia,
Say to God:
“How awesome are your deeds, O Lord!
In the greatness of your power,
your enemies will be convicted of lying to you”
When is an Antiphon Not an Antiphon?
Strictly speaking, the Marian antiphons aren’t really antiphons because they are sung alone. For that reason, they are sometimes called Marian anthems. The antiphons of the Blessed Virgin Mary, “Alma Redemptoris Mater,” “Salve Regina,” “Ave Regina Coelorum,”and “Regina Coeli,” were originally sung in connection with psalms, but they have been sung as detached chants since the year 1239, when Pope Gregory IX ordered that they be sung, each according to its season, at the end of the Divine Office.
Seasons for the Marian Antiphons
According the traditional liturgical rubrics for the 1962 edition of the Latin Divine Office (Divinum Officium in Latin), each of the following four Marian antiphons has its assigned liturgical season:
• Alma Redemptoris Mater (from Vespers of Saturday before the 1st Sunday in Advent through the second Vespers of February 2)
• Ave Regina Caelorum (from Compline of February 2nd until Compline of Wednesday in Holy Week)
• Regina Coeli (from Compline of Easter Sunday until the Compline of Friday after Pentecost Sunday)
• Salve Regina (from 1st Vespers of the Feast of the Blessed Trinity – which is the Sunday after Pentecost Sunday – until None on Saturday before the 1st Sunday of Advent)
The other posts at Deep Down Things about the Marian antiphons are:
- “Salve Regina”
- “Alma Redemptoris Mater”–Part II: Beyond “Salve Regina”
- “Queen of Heaven Rejoice, Alleluia!”–Regina Coeli: Part I: Beyond “Salve Regina”
- “Ave Regina Caelorum” (link to be added soon)
Simple and Solemn Tones
The chants for the Marian antiphons come in two versions, a simple tone and a solemn tone.
The solemn tone (tonus solemnis) version of a chant (which is called a cantus solemnis or cantus festivus) is a more-elaborate setting of a text that sung on certain important feasts.
The simple tone (tonus simplex or tonus ferialis) version (which is also called a cantus simplex or a cantus ferialis) is used on other days.
Just to get an idea of the differences in one of the Marian antiphons, you can listen to the solemn tone of the “Salve Regina” here.
And you can hear the simple tone here.
Hours for Singing the Marian Antiphon
The Liturgy of the Hours that was released after Vatican II allows the singing of any Marian antiphon or none at all after Night Prayer.
In the traditional Divine Office, the Marian hymn of the season is always sung after Compline.
In some places that follow the traditional liturgical rules, the antiphons are also sung at the end of Mass. The traditional Latin Masses that I attend, which are celebrated by canons of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, usually end with everyone singing the appropriate Marian hymn for the season while the priest and servers are leaving the altar. The Marian antiphon is also sung at the end of every Vespers service I’ve attended.
Non sequitur, but as the Emperor in the movie Amadeus said so often that it became a catchphrase, “Well, there it is!”
If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments.
* Hail, Holy Mother