From the Bench: 'Where is that Kyrie from, and why does it sound familiar?'


by Jeremy Kiolbassa, Director of Music & Liturgy

You probably noticed that we have been singing a new Kyrie at our weekend Masses. This Kyrie comes from a book called the Kyriale which contains a collection of Gregorian Chants. The collection includes eighteen settings of the Mass Ordinary (texts such as the “Holy, Holy, Holy” that do not change from Mass to Mass). The book suggests that each setting be sung at different times in the church year. The Kyrie we’ve been singing comes from Mass XI, or “Missa Orbis Factor”. Though the composer is unknown, the tune was probably based on a devotional hymn “Orbis factor, rex aeternae eleison” (“Creator of the world, Eternal King, have mercy”). The practice of borrowing and adapting melodies for liturgical use is as ancient as chant itself. Many of the Gregorian melodies that have been passed down through the ages started as hymns or even secular tunes. St. Gregory the Great (Pope Gregory I) is often credited with notating and standardizing these melodies, sometimes depicted as taking down musical dictation from a dove. However modern scholarship tells us that the standardization of chant didn’t come until about 300 years after Gregory I’s death. The term “Gregorian” probably came about as a way to honor a contemporary pope, Pope Gregory II. Nevertheless, the term Gregorian Chant stuck and has come to describe the entire genre. Below is a recording of the Kyrie from Mass XI that we will sing throughout Lent.  

Each line of text is repeated three times, which is slightly different than the call and response format we have become used to in the modern liturgy. This ancient practice stems from the regard of the number 3 as a scared number. Because there are three line of text, and each is repeated three times, this nine-fold plea for mercy is intended to bend the ear of the Divine. I have chosen to re-introduce this practice in Lent to emphasize the penitent nature of the season.

You may also have noticed that though it is ‘new’, it probably sounds familiar… that’s because we have actually been singing this melody for about 5 years, but with different words. The Lenten Gospel acclamation that we’ve sung for several years is actually based on the melody of this Kyrie. Have a look at them side by side:

Kyrie Gospel Acc Orbis Factor.png

Though we are using a different Lenten Gospel acclamation this year, you will hear this melody later in the Mass, when we sing “Save us Savior of the World…” and the Great Amen before Communion. Both are modern adaptations of an ancient melody, but they follow in the long tradition of ‘borrowing’ familiar melodies for use at Mass.

Want to learn more about Gregorian Chant? Click here for a more in depth article.