Holy Week Recitation Tones from Monte Cassino

The art of cantillation—the chanting of liturgical texts—, which is the root of all liturgical chant, has been largely lost in the West. Even a cursory comparison of modern Latin practice with the chanting traditions still cultivated by Eastern Christians, Jews, and Muslims would suffice to make manifest how impoverished the Latin Church is in this respect.

But this contrast is a recent phenomenon, and a closer study of the Western musical heritage reveals that cantillation was once cultivated among Latin Christians with great devotion and skill. Unfortunately, the compilers of the Solesmes books chose to preserve only a modicum of the ancient recitation melodies once heard in our churches, a fact that continues to obscure the riches of the Western musical tradition.

Here we would like to present some of the recitation tones once sung during the Holy Triduum in the monasteries of the Cassinese Congregation, as collected in a booklet entitled Cantus monastici formula, published in 1889.


The Lamentations of Jeremiah, which form the readings of the first nocturn of Matins during the Triduum, have always been sung to a special tone of lamentation distinct from the usual prophecy tone. The Cassinese version is similar to the tune provided by the Solesmes edition:

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The Solesmes book assign the usual prophecy tone for the lesson from St Augustine read in the second nocturn, but the Cassinese tradition has preserved a proper melody:

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The Passion tones provided in the Cantus monastici formula are generally simpler than those in Vatican Edition, but the most poignant passages are graced with special melismatic melodies:

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Voyages Liturgiques, Angers (3): The Triduum (and Ostrich Eggs!)

Part (1): The Office on Solemn Days
Part (2): Solemn Mass at the Cathedral

Maundy Thursday 

On Maundy Thursday, the bishop is not assisted at Mass by the archdeacons, but by two canons whom he invites to assist. When the time comes to bless the oils, the archdeacons exit the choir and go in their choir-dress to serve and assist the bishop, who gives this blessing outside and in front of the balustrade of the altar. The canons-deacon and -subdeacon remain seated within the enclosure of the sanctuary. The thirteen cardinaux-curés[1] of the city come to the altar vested in chasubles and the other vestments beneath at the moment when the blessing of the oils begin. They arrange themselves on the gospel side at the foot of the altar; this is their place on the three solemn days when they assist the bishop. At one time, these three days were Easter, St. Maurice, and Christmas, but at the synod of 1664 this was changed to the feasts of St. Maurice; St. Maurilius, bishop and patron of Angers; and St. Andrew the Apostle.

On Maundy Thursday after Mass, the bishop having removed his vestments except for the rochet and pectoral cross and the deacon or [autre suivant] having removed his cope and camail, the bursar or receveur of the chapter presents each of them a cloth apron which he attaches around them. Thereafter, both go to wash the high altar and only one of the minor altars; yet the singers chant the usual antiphons. After this, the bishop and the deacon go to the cloister to wash the feet of twelve children of the Hôpital. The singers chant the antiphons.

The executeur de justice is present, and acts as a verger, keeping back the multitude of people. After the ceremony is done, the bursar helps wash the hands of the bishop and the dean.

At 2 p.m., the clergy of the Cathedral church having assembled, a deacon accompanied by a subdeacon comes into choir and sings the Gospel Ante diem festum Paschae. After this, the dean, or sometimes a young theologian, delivers a discourse in Latin about the mystery celebrated this day. After this discourse is over, the third archdeacon reads in the lesson Our Savior’s sermon, beginning with these words: Amen, amen, dico vobis, non est servus super dominum suum, &c., and finishing with the words, Surgite, eamus hinc. Then everyone in choir rises and goes to the bishopric into a room called the Salle du Clergé, which is surrounded by benches divided into two rows. In the back of this room there is a grand sideboard prepared with glasses or white and red wine and water. Towards the middle there is a pulpit with a cloth, and towards the front a small table with a tablecloth, on top of which there is a silver basin, an ewer, and a towel on top. After each one has taken his place, and everybody is seated, the four oldest choir-boys make a bow and go to the sideboard. They place a napkin over their arm and each takes two glasses in his hands. In one of them the bishop’s officers pour white wine and water into the other, and so all four choir-boys go to present them to the bishop and the entire choir.

Each mixes his wine according to his taste and, after someone has drunk, the choir-boy goes to the sideboard to wash the glass and take it to someone else, and so they go around the table from one corner to the other. After everyone has had white wine, the same round is repeated with red wine, and finally a third time with white wine. (Each one is free to drink what he likes, or even nothing at all.) Then the bishop rises and a subdeacon gives him a napkin, placing it over his arm, and hands him the ewer which was set on the small table. This subdeacon takes the basin and both go to wash the hands of the canons and dignitaries only, but they excuse themselves. After this, the penitentiary, or sometimes a young theologian in his place, gives a discourse in Latin about the institution of the Eucharist, after which they all go back to choir and they say Compline in silence, i.e., each one for himself. Then, they sing Tenebrae. In the above ceremony, the sub-cantor gives the bishop, the dignitaries, and the canons four deniers each.

Good Friday

If the bishop does not celebrate the Office on this day, the celebrant wears, instead of the alb, a large robe of yellow silk, at the bottom of which there is, in front and behind, an embroidery similar to the ornamentation of an alb. He also wears a chasuble in the old style, i.e., wholly round and closed. It is purple and of a rich fabric.

In this Office, only two prophecies are sung and on the next day (Holy Saturday) four prophecies are sung. The canons who sing them wear, on top of their black capes and their camails, similar old-style chasubles in different colors. (These are also used on the Vigil of Pentecost, on top of a surplice.)

The deacon who is at the altar goes to the back of the choir and sings the gospel of the Passion. He sings the words of the narrator. A canon wearing an apparelled amice over his head and another large robe of almost-yellow silk with a girdle, similar to the one mentioned above, is at the choir’s eagle, and sings the words of Our Lord. The music choir is at the jubé and sings the words of the Jews, such as Crucifigatur.

On Good Friday, the little Hours and Vespers are said sub silentio in choir.

Holy Saturday

 The little Hours are said sub silentio in choir. On this day and on the Vigil of Pentecost, the Lord Canons of St. Maurice go in procession to bless the fonts of the parish church which is by the entrance of the Cathedral church, at the right when entering. In this procession, two deacons in albs and dalmatics carry the sacred oils in two great vases. Over their heads, they have a large veil of white silk or transparent gauze, which fall over their backs and front; they use the ends of these to carry the vases. They walk after the deacon who is vested in a cope and who carries the Paschal candle, which remains lit from the moment it is blessed until after Benediction on Easter day, i.e. until 7 p.m.

(On the first three days of Easter after Vespers the procession to the fonts is made with the same ceremonies, and the two canons who did the incensations during the Magnificat continually incense the sacred oils as they walk. During this procession, the psalms Laudate pueri and In exitu are sung, as elsewhere.)

In front of this chapel which serves as the parish church, there is the room where the Council of Tours concluded. The council was transferred to Angers on account of the plague that beset Tours in 1583.

On Holy Saturday before Compline, and on Easter Sunday between None and Vespers, the clergy goes to the bishopric again for a potation similar to the one on Maundy Thursday, except that there are no ceremonies besides the drinking. On Easter day, the cantor goes thither with his stave and four assistants. The bishop is there clad in his pontifical vestments with miter and crozier. On this day, as they go out from the room where they had their drinks, the bishop stops by the door, and the clergy also stops in the grand hall of the bishopric and arranges itself in two rows. The two choir-boys who carry the candles in front of the bishop sing the first two verses of the hymn:

Salve festa dies, toto venerabilis aevo,

Qua Deus infernum vicit, et astra tenet.

And the clergy slowly repeats them as they lead the bishop to choir.

On this same day, and on Christmas, at Terce the bishop goes to put on his pontifical vestments in the parish chapel at the back of the nave. The entire choir in capes goes to get him, and they sing with the same ritual, Salve festa dies &c.

Easter Sunday

 Towards the evening of Holy Saturday, the enclosure of the high altar is covered above and in front with a great white cloth. It remains covered up until the announcement of the Resurrection,[2] which is done thus:

After the third and last responsory of Matins, the two master-chaplains go to the altar and hide behind the cloth. Two corbeliers wearing a simple amice on their heads and above this amice a sort of embroidered skullcap called the mitella in Latin, and gloves or mittens in their hands, present themselves at the altar. The master-chaplains sing, asking them, Quem quaeritis? The corbeliers representing the Marys’ reply, Jesum Nazarenum crucifixum. The master-chaplains continue, Non est hic, surrexit sicut praedixerat; venite, et videte locum ubi positus erat Dominus. The corbeliers enter, and the master-chaplains continue to sing, Ite, nuntiate discipulis ejus quia surrexit. The corbeliers, as they come in, take two ostrich eggs[3] covered by a silk cloth, and go to the choir singing, Alleluia, resurrexit Dominus, resurrexit leo fortis, Christus filius Dei. The choir replies, Deo gratias, alleluia. (This same Office of the Sepulcher or of the Resurrection was performed in Rouen with the same words no more than a hundred or 150 years ago, but it has been suppressed there since.)

The organ begins the Te Deum. The two corbeliers go to the bishop, to the dignitaries, to the canons, and to all in choir saying in each person’s ear, Resurrexit, alleluia, to which each replies, Deo gratias, alleluia.

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Apparition of the Crucified of Mount Ararat in the Church of Sant’ Antonio di Castello, c.1512. Notice the ostrich egg above the uppermost sanctuary lamp, and below along the arcade of the rood screen along with other votive items.


[1] De Moleon and his contemporaries had a curious idea about the origin of this name. The author gives his explanation in the chapter on Sens (pg. 170):

“In Sens there are 16 priests, of which 13 are called (as at Angers and Troyes) Presbyteri Cardinales, Prêtres Cardinaux, who are the 13 assistant priests to the bishop at Solemn Mass. Currently they no longer assist except on two feasts of St. Stephen, patron of the cathedral church, and the Dedication of the same Church and on Holy Thursday for the holy oils. They are called cardinals (Cardinaux), and in Latin cardinales because they stand at the corners of the altar (as we still see in Sens and Lyon) ad cardines altaris or in cardine altaris, which is to say at the corners (aux carnes) of the altar, so that there were the priests of the corner, and the bishop was the priest in the middle, Presbyter de medio. The cardinals of the Roman Church, whether priests or deacons, also stood at the corner when the pope celebrated a Solemn Mass.”

De Vert makes the same claim, vol. 1, pg. 387. The Dictionnaire de l’académie française (1786) in fact contains an entry for “carne”: “L’angle exterieur d’un pierre, d’une table” (pg 172). However, this is a fanciful reconstruction. We know that the Roman cardinals were so-called because they were the titular priests of the cardines, the major parishes around which Roman ecclesial life turned.

[2] Des Marettes clearly considers the liturgical celebration of the Resurrection proper to begin with Easter Matins (like the Byzantines) and not the Easter Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday.

[3] Cf. Sebastian Bock, “‘Egg’ of the Pala Montefeltro by Piero della Francesca and its symbolic meaning.”

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Ostrich eggs (and those of other birds) were frequently hung in churches in both West and East, as many texts and artistic works from the period attest, but their exact meaning is contested. They are still hung before the iconostasis in many Coptic churches. Angers may be the only example of the use of ostrich eggs to symbolize the Resurrection. Durandus merely points out that their strangeness drew people’s attention to God:

“In some churches, ostrich eggs and other such things that cause admiration and that are rarely seen, used to be suspended, so that thereby people will be drawn to church and be all the more affected. Again, some say that the ostrich, as a forgetful bird,forgets its eggs in the sand and only when it sees a certain star is reminded and returns to them and warms them with its gaze. Eggs are thus hung in churches to signify that man, forsaken by God on account of his sins, – when he at last, illuminated by the light of God, remembers, regrets his sins and returns to Him – is warmed by His merciful gaze. It is in this same way, as is written in Luke, that the Lord looked back at Peter after he had denied Christ. They [the eggs] are thus suspended in churches so that each and everyone contemplates that man easily forgets god unless he is illuminated by a star, that is, by the influence of the grace of the Holy Spirit, and remembers to return to Him through good works” (Gvillelmi Dvranti Rationale Divinorvm Officiorvm. Corpvs Christianorvm, Continuatio Mediaeualis, vol. CXL (Turnholt: Brepol Editores Pontificii, 1995), 49.

The Fissiraga Tomb. Antonio Fissiraga presented to the Virgin Mary by St Francis and a bishop-saint, by Master of the Fissiraga Tomb, 1318, 14th Century, fresco

Brera Madonna, Piero della Francesca

An ancient Greek text (Physiologus) suggest a similar function:

“It lays eggs yet it does not warm them according to custom, but, on the contrary, it sits down and gazes at them with its eyes. Through the eyes’ heat they are warmed and born – but when it overlooks them, they are not born. For this reason, the eggs are suspended in Church, as an example to us. While we stand together in prayer we fix our eyes on God, who has wiped out our sins.”

On the eggs of Angers see Revue de l’art chretienne 32 (1881).