Melanie Spiller & Coloratura Consulting
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Completely Off Topic
Completely Off Topic
Lux Aeterna, a Chant of Eternal Light
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This blog post is part of a blog hop on the subject of light and illumination, to celebrate the Winter Solstice. To read other posts that are part of the “hop,” check out the links at the end of my post, or follow this one:

Once a week, I sing Gregorian chant. It’s a wonderful, ancient, simple, deep, and deeply satisfying thing to do regardless of religion. We’re a motley crew with only one practicing Catholic among us, but singing Gregorian chant isn’t about the religious nature of the music. It’s about preserving an ancient tradition, about connecting to the earliest of Western music’s roots, and about being part of a loving community that accepts us all despite bumps and snaggles, regardless of musical experience or education, regardless of religion or spiritual practice. It’s a place where people come to SING.

There are thousands of Gregorian chants. They were collected in many different ways over the millennia, but most who sing Gregorian chant today sing from the Liber Usualis, which was collected by the Benedictine Abbot Andre Mocquereau (1849-1930) at Solesmes, France in 1896. But he didn’t write them—he only collected them in one tidy place. The chants have been heavily used from the earliest days of Christianity, documented by order of Pope Gregory (c540-604) in the 6th century (and from whom they get their name), and performed as part of every Mass and every Divine Office, until Vatican II in 1962 allowed the Catholic Mass to be performed in the vernacular, and chant lost its ubiquity.

In the spirit of the changing light at the Winter Solstice, I thought it would be fun to look at one particular chant, one of my favorites, called Lux Aeterna. It’s the communion piece of the Requiem Mass, and therefore, only something you’d hear at a funeral. But it’s incredibly sweet and it’s about eternal light, which is something that feels absent on these dark winter days.

First, a little background.

In the Beginning

Sometime around the 4th century CE, in Carthage, the practice developed of singing from the book of Psalms in the Old Testament during the collection and blessing of the offering, and during the distribution of the bread and wine in communion. Saint Augustine (354CE-430) mentions this psalm-singing as a new practice, and also mentions that it was the Schola, a trained group of priest-musicians, who did the singing.

The Schola sang a chunk of a psalm, the doxology (Gloria Patri et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum—if you’ve heard any Christian service, you’ve heard this doxology in some form, in English, Latin, or the vernacular of the service in question. Sometimes it’s sung, sometimes it’s spoken), and then a repeat of the psalm verse. During the singing, the congregation lined up for their individual portions of bread and wine, and if the chant ended, the rest of the people took communion in silence.

In the 7th century or so, the practice of giving individual communion was abandoned, and they also abandoned the need for such a long piece of music. But music was evolving and by the 8th and 9th centuries, the communion portion of the Mass had become an impressive piece of music. You have to remember that music of this time was memorized—music notation wasn’t invented until the 10th century (for more on this, see my post on the History of Music Notation), so a long and complex chant was exciting on many levels. It might be different every time you heard it.

At first, the communion chant was sung as a responsory, with the congregation singing back certain predictable phrases to the Schola. But it evolved into something more complex and interesting, a chant worthy of contemplation and consideration by the congregation during this holy portion of the Mass service.

By the 12th century, only the initial verse of the psalm and the doxology remained, with psalm tones (verses sung on a reciting note) included to lengthen the piece to accommodate the entire congregation stepping forward for communion. Eventually, even the psalm tone disappeared, except in the Mass for the Dead, which uses Lux Aeterna, the subject of this blog post. (Yay! I’m finally getting to it!)


A Look at the Chant

The Requiem Mass, as you might imagine, tells stories of life eternal, of peace and light being part of a permanent slumber, and offers comfort to the survivors. And the Communion, the last piece of the Propers (the music that changes daily, as opposed to the Ordinaries—the Kyrie, Credo, Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei—that are part of every Mass), is the final opportunity to impart wisdom.

This is what the chant looks like:

The neumes that make up the notes have been used since the late 11th century and people who sing chant today still use them. There’s a lot of information there: the intervals between the notes, the duration of the notes in context of the rest of the notes (not rhythm, just length), when to change notes and how the text syllables line up, when to breathe, and what mode the piece is in (for more on modes, read my post on Church Modes), and there’s even a cool little thing called a custos, that tells the singer what the first note on the next line will be. I don’t know why this little gem didn’t make it into modern music, as it’s incredibly useful.

You can see that the notes all have similar shapes, mostly square blocks, some with dangly bits, a few diamond-shaped notes, and the occasional squiggle. There are some vertical lines that break up phrases, and others that group the neumes into groups of two and three notes. There are only four lines on the staff (modern staves have five), and the clef, the one that tells where the scales begin and end, is only roughly similar to a modern clef. In truth, this early music offers all the information you need. Modern notation adds key signatures, another staff line, rhythmically countable measures, and a greater variety of note types and lengths, but those things weren’t necessary before about the 13th century, when polyphony began to develop. (You can read more about polyphony in Chords versus Polyphony.)

The Sound of Lux Aeterna

This is what Lux Aeterna sounds like:

·         This version was sung by Giovanni Vianini at the Schola Gregoriana Mediolanensis in 2008: What I like about it is that it’s unhurried; he enjoys letting each note, each word, each phrase float out into the space and resonate there.

·        Here’s another version, sung by a group of men in unison: They hurry a little through each clump of words with long pauses at the end of each phrase, so I don’t like it as well as the solo performance, but the chant is much more likely to be sung by a group than as a solo, and I thought you should hear it.

The words they’re singing are:

Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine; cum sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia pius es.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua, luceat eis.

That translates (according to my 1949 Liber Usualis) as:

May eternal light shine upon them, O Lord, in the company of your saints for eternity, for you are full of goodness.

Give them eternal rest, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine on them.

Now here’s the interesting bit. Unlike most chant texts, this one comes from a book of the New Testament that was written in Hebrew rather than Greek and isn’t included in the New Testament of most Christian denominations.

I asked a Bible-scholar friend about context for the text, as the Liber Usualis cites a chapter and verse of a book that none of my Catholic friends had heard of. Lux Aeterna is from the fourth chapter of Esdras or Ezra, my scholarly friend reports, a deuterocanonical work. That means that it was written by Christians to be part of the Old Testament before the New Testament was available. None of the original texts have survived and the only existing copies are in Latin, so they’re all translations from Hebrew. That means that no one knows what words were originally written.

My friend found the chapter in the Latin Vulgate Appendix and in the Slavonic Bible. Its presence in the Vulgate means that it was known to Latin Christendom by the late 5th century, so Saint Augustine (354-430) wouldn’t have read it or heard this specific chant. It’s about a hundred years too late.

The text is purported to have been written by Ezra the Scribe (fl 480-440 BCE), who led a group of Judean exiles from Babylonia and reintroduced the Torah to Jerusalem.

Ezra writes:

I received a command from the Lord on Mount Horeb to go to Israel. When I came there, they rejected me and refused the Lord’s commandment.

Therefore, I say to you, “O Nations that hear and understand; wait for your shepherd; he will give you everlasting rest, because he who will come at the end of the age is close at hand. Be ready for the rewards of the kingdom, because perpetual light will shine on you forevermore.”

The relevant words in Latin (not the original Hebrew) are these, from Ezra 2:35:

Parati estote ad praemia regni, quia lux perpetua lucebit vobis per aeternitatem temporis.

Which translates to:

Prepare for the rewards of the kingdom, for the everlasting light shall shine upon you forever.

You might notice that there’s no literal quotation here to match the one I offered earlier. It’s fairly safe to assume that this difference is caused by a different translation—varying interpretations are always a problem with translations.

The story Ezra tells is about going to Israel to prepare the way for the Messiah. He is rejected, and tells the Israelites of the promise of eternal light if they behave themselves. The Liber Usualis version is less of a compelling argument and more of a promise to the already faithful, which may be the interpretation of someone who was convinced that the Messiah had already come—the main difference between Christians and Jews.

A Little Historical Context

At the end of the 4th century, the nomadic (and violent) tribes from the north (such as Goths, Frisians, and Franks) began to adopt Christianity and abandon some of their pagan ways. Clovis I (c466-c511) had a battlefield conversion, and he and his wife convinced other Germanic tribes to convert. By the end of the 5th century, Catholicism—especially monastic Catholicism—had made its way to Ireland and became hugely popular there. Saint Brigit (c421-525) and Saint Patrick (dates unknown, but in the 5th century) were both seminal figures in Irish history, and both embraced a monastic lifestyle.

Also in the 5th century, the Catholic Church held synods that declared Mary the mother of the Christ but not the mother of God Himself. Those who disagreed fled east, eventually forming what we today call Oriental Orthodoxy (the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches—basically Byzantium).

It was at that same synod in the 5th century that Greek was abandoned as the language of scholars and Latin was adopted. Also in the 5th century, the tradition of monasticism, which came from certain strains of Judaism, was refined and broadly adopted—Saint Benedict, who wrote the seminal (and eponymous) Rule, was born near the end of the 5th century.

As you can see, this little Lux Aeterna chant came to being during a tumultuous and interesting time and allows us to peek at a change in attitudes toward Christianity itself.

Listening Corner

The story of this chant doesn’t end there. It’s time to settle yourself into a comfy chair and do some listening!

These polyphonic and chordal offerings are based on the Gregorian Lux Aeterna (they’re alphabetically listed by composer, so you’ll be leaping around in time), and you can hear the chant in them:

·         Ivo Antognini (b. 1963) wrote a haunting piece with elements of the chant mixed in with such a full sounding choir that it sounds like an orchestra. The piece resolves in a surprising way. Listen twice!

·        Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) wrote an incredible Requiem where the chant is very present throughout.

·        Morten Lauridsen (b 1943) wrote an elaborate Funeral Mass and included the Lux Aeterna movement. The total recording is about half an hour, and this is the third 10-minute portion of it, as performed by the Lost Angeles Master Chorale and Orchestra: The Lux Aeterna movement begins at about 3 minutes in, and you can hear the original chant only slightly.

·         John Rutter (b. 1945) has the chant in it as performed by a soloist against more complex large-choir and orchestra backdrop.

·        Z. Randall Stroope (b.1953) wrote this version for women’s voices and organ accompaniment. are nice nods to the chant, and lots of interesting dissonances. Sadly, an abrupt ending to the recording leaves us not knowing if we’ve heard the last note and it’s musically weird enough that it’s impossible to guess.

·        Guiseppe Verdi (1813-1901) wrote a version, performed here by the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra. It’s very much based on the chant, until it evolves into something more operatic. Love love love Nicolai Ghiarov, the bass (but they’re all good). So delicious, it felt almost naughty, that’s how much I liked it.

·         Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611, biography to come) wrote a Lux Aeterna movement in his Missa Pro Defunctis. You can hear it performed by the Gabrieli Consort here: In this piece, you can hear each movement of the Mass announced first by chant, and it’s up to you to decide whether he stayed true to the chant in the polyphony or not.

Other pieces by the same name had no chant reference in them at all, but it was an interesting study (again, alphabetical):

·        Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) wrote a chant-like piece, only there’s rhythm (some chants have rhythm, but Gregorian chant never does). This was recorded in the Vatican Basilica.

·        David Briggs (b.1962) wrote a Requiem, here performed by Euphony and members of the Northern Chamber Orchestra It’s chant-like and haunting.

·         Steve Dobrogosz (b1956) uses chant elements, although he doesn’t quote the chant exactly.

·         Sir Edward William Elgar (1857-1934) wrote a movement that’s chant-like, although it doesn’t use the Gregorian chant. Lots of interesting things happen melodically, including a return to the sense of lightness from leaping high notes.

·        Gabriel Fauré wrote a Requiem in D Minor (Op. 48). This version was performed by the Orchetre de la Suisse Romande with the Chorale de la Tour de Peilz, conducted by Robert Mermoud. The Agnus Dei is compelling even though it’s not at all chant-based. The Lux Aeterna begins at about 2:05, and continues the trend of not being based on the Gregorian chant.

·         György Ligeti (1923-2006), wrote a note-clustering style for 16 solo voices that resolves into a familiar chord only occasionally.

·        Clint Mansell’s (b.1963) movie version Requiem for a Dream is repetitive and intense, and frankly, I enjoyed a metal version of it more than the intended orchestral version The Kronos Quartet did a version as well, which I also liked better than the movie version.

·        Fernando Moruja (1960-2004) wrote an exquisite offering that I thought was too short. I want more, but it looks like he had a short life.

·         Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) wrote a Lux Aeterna movement in his Requiem Mass, which he meant to have performed at his own funeral. This version is conducted by Karl Richter: There’s no real evidence of the chant melody in this rather staunch version.

·         Pawel Szymansky (b.1954) wrote a splinky bells, harp, and random vocal notes version that sounds simple but is probably devilishly hard to perform.

·        This last one is uncredited. There’s dreadful (in my opinion) organ chording underneath the chant, and then it bursts into thankfully unaccompanied polyphony. When the chant starts up again, so does the organ. Too bad. (I suppose some might like it, but it sounds very wrong to my ears.)

Recordings That Might Interest You

These are some recordings I had on my shelf, so I can vouch for their yumminess.

Tallis Scholars “Requiem,” which includes Victoria’s (c1548-1611) Requiem Mass (exceprted above), Duarte Lobo’s (1565-1646) Requiem Mass, and Manuel Cardoso’s (1566-1650) Requiem Mass.

Athestis Chorus, conducted by Filippo Maria Bressan, which includes the Requiem in the Venetian Manner, by Benedetto Marcello (1686-1739).

Ensemble Organum, conducted by Marcel Peres, on a recording of Johannes Ockeghem (c1420-1497), Requiem, 11th track. Yay. Very chant based, and only barely polyphony, as polyphony was in its infancy.

And now for something completely different: Having (perhaps) nothing to do with the chant, but using the name Lux Aeterna, here’s a nice dance company. There are no credits for music or dancers, but it was intense and fun to watch!


“Gregorian Chant,” by Willi Apel. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1990.

“Liber Usualis,” edited by the Benedictines of Solesmes. Society of St. John the Evangelist, Tournai Belgium, 1949.

“New Revised Standard Bible,” edited by Bruce M. Metzger. Oxford University Press, New York, 1991.