Signum magnum apparuit in caelo.

Guest column from Jake Tawney of Roma locuta est.


Tomorrow is the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother. The Introit chant from the Graduale is the every timeless Signum magnum. Listen carefully to the chant:

Before discussing the translation, take a listen to a far better known Introit: the Puer natus from the Mass of Christmas Day.

Did you catch it? Listen to them both again carefully. The first thing you will notice is that they are both in mode 7, so they have a similar “sound” to one another. Mode 7 always strikes me as a “solemn joy” mode. It is bright enough to convey the sense of the jubilant, yet toned down enough to emphasize the great solemnity of the event. Keeping in mind that the Introit is the first thing heard at Mass, it (excuse the pun) sets the tone for the rest of the celebration. The mode is appropriate for Nativity of the Lord as well as the Assumption of the Blessed Mother. Both are joyous events to be sure, yet each in its own unique way is an event to be pondered with a great sense of awe and mystery.

The similarity is not just in the mode, however. If you listen to them once more, pay careful attention to the verse that is sung after the Introit and before its repetition. It is not only the same mode, but the same melody. This, of course is not unusual, for most of the mode 7 Introits take this melody for their verses. But these two Introits share not only the same melody for their verse; in this case they also share the same words.

Cantate Domino canticum novum: quia mirabilia fecit.

Sing unto the Lord a new song, for he has done wondrous deeds.

The verse is an alteration of the opening of the 96th Psalm and is appropriate for both of these great solemnities. The Nativity of the Lord is that day on which the darkness of the cosmos begins to decrease and the light of salvation begins its increase. Even the dating of Christmas near the winter solstice shows off this cosmic significance, as pointed out in The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ratzinger). The light will find its definitive victory in the Resurrection. (Incidentally, the very same verse, mode, and melody are found in the Introits for the Feria Quarta and Feria Qunita following Easter. Moreover, although different in structure and mode, the same phrase forms the main Introit text for the fourth Sunday after Easter, which has thus been dubbed “Cantate Sunday”.) As for the Assumption, the Church is emphasizing that perennial apologetic truth, that Mary’s bodily Assumption was not something she accomplished, but was a “wondrous deed” accomplished by the Lord. The first “wondrous deed” done through the Blessed Virgin was precisely that event of its paired Introit: the Nativity, which was the culmination of the event that begun with her fiat at the Annunciation. (As expected, there are musical connections between the Annunciation and the Assumption. The same mode 2 Introit is prescribe for the Feast of the Annunciation and the Vigil of the Assumption; the Introit is Vultum tuum and comes from the Common of Virgins.)

The very structure of the Introits themselves is similar, though some of this is to be expected given that most Introits are very similar in basic structure, and these two find themselves composed in the same mode. However, there is one melodic line that is identical and shares a similar text. In the Puer Natus we hear, “et vocabitur” which translates, “and shall be called.” (The phrase actually pairs with the subsequent words “et vocabitur nomen ejus” to translate, “And his name shall be called.”) In the Signum magnum we hear, “et in capite” which translates, “and on her head” (when the Latin ejus is added to the phrase). Both phrases share the same melody line with a sustained pitch (the Puer natus on the end of vocabitur and the Signum magnum on the end of capite. The word ejus, present at the close of both phrases and given an ornate melisima, can be translated from Latin as either “his” or “hers” according to context. By giving this pronoun a musical emphasis, the paired Introits point out the two key players in the history of salvation: Christ (the new Adam) and Mary (the New Eve). In fact, both Introits have the same word (ejus) ending the previous phrase as well. The full reality of the texts is that each eloquently describes the person whom the respective Mass is celebrating: the Puer Natus describes the infant Jesus and the Signum magnum describes the Assumed Virgin. Both are laden with lyrical and musical mystery appropriate to their reality.

The full translations of the texts are:

Puer natus est nobis,
et filius datus est nobis:
cujus imperium
super humerum ejus:
et vocabitur nomen ejus,
magni consilii Angelus.

A child is born to us, and Son is given to us: whose government is upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called, the Angel of great counsel.

Signum magnum
apparuit in caelo:
mulier amicta sole,
et luna sub pedibus ejus,
et in capite ejus
corona stellarum duodecim.

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.

It never ceases to amaze me the musical and lyrical connections found in the Gregorian Propers. The more one studies the chants, the more one comes to realize why these pieces form the official music of the Church. People who grew up with these melodies would have been all too familiar with the popular Puer Natus and, upon hearing the verse from the Signum magnum, would have been immediately transported to the Mass of Christmas Day. Whether the connection in their minds be conscious or subconscious, it would have been made nonetheless. Examples of these types of parallels are bountiful in the Gregorian repertoire. The reality is that the liturgy and Gregorian chant developed in tandem; as the liturgy, guided by the Holy Spirit, was finding its voice, that voice became expressed in the Gregorian melodies that grew up along side of it. For this reason, the two are inseparable. This is why, while other forms of music, such as Sacred Polyphony, may be appropriate to express the grandeur of the Sacred Liturgy, they will always be subordinate to the Gregorian compositions.* This is also why a period of history that has marginalized, or even eliminated, the Gregorian Chant that is proper to the liturgy is a period that will necessarily lose sight of the essence of the sacramental mysteries that constitute life in the Church.

* It should be pointed out, however, that the structure of Sacred Polyphony is based of the ancient Gregorian melodies, which is why they contain within themselves a continuity that suits them for use during the Sacred Mysteries.

19 Replies to “Signum magnum apparuit in caelo.”

  1. As the author of this post, I should point out that I realize that the Introit for the Mass of the Assumption is a recent composition. However, as Jeffrey has pointed out, these melodies are often put together from preexisting melodies and cause great headaches for those monks who are doing the composing. There are two important points here. First, the fact that it is a recent composition does not at all diminish the argument that ancient chant is proper to the liturgy and that musical and lyrical connections can be found among the various propers. The fact that the connections exist even with more recent compositions actually serves to strengthen this argument as it shows that there is something inherently "connective" about this form of music. Second, it also shows that "new" sacred music can be composed without being "novel" but instead serving the principle of continuity. I wrote about the topic of new compositions at

  2. Of course, the older Introit for this feast is Gaudeamus. The Assumption/Dormition is a very old feast both East and West. Once the dogma of the Assumption was defined and promulgated in the West, Pius XII asked for a new Introit and Communion specific to this Feast. The Introit text "Signum Magnum" was chosen and the melody from the octave of the feast of St Lawrence, martyr, was adapted to it. In the NO Mass, either Introit may be used for this feast.
    As Jake says, there is nothing wrong in adapting older melodies to new texts if done wisely and with great craft. Of course, it is likely that nuances and symbolism will be lost, but on the other hand, the melody can be changed enough to create new ones in conformity with the new text.
    This raises the issue of composing new melodies using the Gregorian "style", a style that is well suited for prayer. I raise this issue because there is already a precedent for this: the Sanctus of Mass X is actually a Dom Pothier composition of about 100 years ago in the Gregorian "style". In other words, it should be possible to compose new Gregorian melodies for new Propers, and here I have in mind the ones in the NO Missal that are not found in the Roman Gradual. This may not go well with purists, but then we must also be careful of archeologism, and consider continuing to compose in a "style" that is timeless.

  3. Ted,

    Thank you for pointing out where the melody line for the Signum Magnum comes from and that the original Introit was the Gaudeamus, an Introit that is still am option for several feasts throughout the NO liturgical year. If I am not mistaken, when Pius XII commissioned the new Introit after dogmatically defining the Assumption, it was a monk from Solesmes that accomplished the marriage of the St. Lawrence Introit melody with the words from the Book of Revelation. I would have to check on that, however, as I don't have a reference off hand.

    It is common, of course, to choose Gregorian melodies from liturgical celebrations and adapt them to new solemnities and feast days. In doing this, the utmost case is taken to preserve the Gregorian repertoire in its integrity.

    The point is, as we know, the liturgical calendar is subject to change: most notably new saints are canonized and inserted into the calendar. When this happens, new Propers will need composed, and the example of the Signum Magnum is but one example that can serve to show that it is indeed possible not only to do this in continuity with the Gregorian tradition but also, as you pointed out, to accomplish it so that new nuances and symbolism are brought in to conform to the new text.

    Finally, I certainly appreciate the comment about avoid acheologism. Pope Benedict has often warned of this, and the same man, in Summorum Pontificum, when asking that the two expressions of the Roman Rite mutually enrich one another, pointed to the calendar (in particular the saints canonized since 1962) as a place where the EF might experience organic growth. (He also made brief mention of new Prefaces that could be inserted into the old Missal.) The example of composing new Gregorian Propers for these celebrations is an example of how to ensure this growth is indeed organic and in continuity with the liturgical tradition of the Church.

  4. Wow, I'm so so grateful for these discussion. I knew that there was something fishy about the Introit and Communion as of last week when we started practicing them. They lacked the ingenuity and dazzling creativity one would expect. We all assumed that they had been cobbled together from other chants. But at late as 1950? wow. I was further confused when I saw that the Dom Johner discussed different propers in his 1922 book. Now it all makes sense. Ted, do you know who was behind pushing the Pope for this? Might it have been….a certain Bugnini?

  5. Jeffrey:
    Pius XII established a handful of new feasts, mostly Marian ones. The Assumption had been celebrated since at least late antiquity, and like many doctrines of the Church it was the liturgy that taught the lex credendi. There was a lot of enthusiasm last century for Mariology, and Pius XII was himself a very Marian pope. He simply confirmed into dogma what had been the practice all along in the Church as transmitted through the liturgy. The Dormition in the East is a very important feast even today, with preparative fasting and so forth, whereas in the West it had lesser significance. Pius XII raised it to a higher level, even completing the specific Propers for the Feast, thus bringing it closer to the East in importance.
    Bugnini does not seem to mention it in his memoirs, and I doubt he was directly involved with it, or any of the other new feasts introduced at the time. He was more concerned with reforming the liturgy as liturgy from a pastoral perspective rather than getting involved with specific feasts. Most likely he was very busy putting in place the experimental restored Easter Vigil at night that was to start the following year in 1951.

  6. Jeffrey,

    While the lack of creativity is perhaps apparent, this begs the question … what is the Church to do when a new saint or feast is inserted into the calendar. New Propers need composed, so does she (1) take a pre-existing set of propers and simply use it for the new feast day in addition to where they are currently in use, (2) take set of propers that is no longer in use because the days to which they belong are no longer a part of the calendar, (3) take an existing melody and give it new lyrics (hopefully a melody that has some symbolic connection to the new feast, (4) take a no-longer-used melody and give it new lyrics, or (5) attempt to compose a new Gregorian melody with new lyrics? (I do not suggest that these five options are the only ones available, merely the obvious ones). I seem to remember the introduction for the new Missale Romanum promulgated by Paul VI dealing with precisely this issue and emphasizing the need to keep the Gregorian repertoire as in tact as possible. At any rate, I am curious about your thoughts on this.

    Further, the chant for Signum Magnum is an authentic Gregorian melody from the octave of St. Lawrence, as Ted pointed out. It was merely given new words. Does the lack of ingenuity and creativity derive from the fact that the melody and the lyrics were not composed in tandem but artificially brought together? I wonder how we would feel about the original Introit from the octave of St. Lawrence.

    Incidentally, after spending quite some time looking, I am unable to come up with the original chant from this octave. I am very curious to see the Latin and how it aligns with the tones. Any help is appreciated.

  7. From my friend David Sullivan:

    1934 Liber, as Johner
    Introit Gaudeamus
    Gradual Propter veritatem
    Alleluia Assumpta est Maria
    Offertory Assumpta est Maria
    Comm. Optimam partem

    1961 Graduale,
    Introit Signum magnum
    Gradual Audi filia
    Alleluia Assumpta est Maria
    Offertory Inimicitias
    Comm. Beatam me dicent

    Graduale Triplex and Gregorian Missal
    Introit Signum magnum or Gaudeamus
    Gradual Audi filia
    Alleluia Assumpta est Maria
    Offertory Assumpta est Maria
    Comm. Beatam me dicent

    I just don't see the need for the change.

  8. I have thoroughly enjoyed this conversation, and with new posts arriving, it will soon be lost amongst the annals of "Older Posts". I have two thoughts before this happens.

    First, I don't want to miss the proverbial forrest for the trees. The main point here is that the Gregorian repertoire is imbued with symbolism, nuances, and intricate connections between the individual pieces. Some of this is intended by the original composers. Some of it is not directly intended but is the result of a form that is inherently open to such mystery.

    In a way, it reminds me of the Catholic philosophy imbedded in the works of Tolkien. To some questions, such as whether the return of Gandalf is to be seen as a resurrection experience, Tolkien would respond, "Well of course." But to other questions such as whether the triple Christ figures of Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn represent the triple office of priest, prophet, and kind, Tolkien would respond, "I never really thought about that, but I suppose you are right."

    Gregorian chant is the same. Many of the connection are deliberately designed, but it is inevitable that we will be able to find a plethora of others that were not intentionally placed there. This does not make the observations any less genuine, but rather serves to show the "truth" of the form in which these pieces were written.

    Jeffrey, you and I are on the same page. The Mass of the Assumption had perfectly good Propers, and I too do not see the need for the change. Organic growth in the Liturgy requires that the changes made have some need for being changed. The question I raised in the previous comment was not whether the change was appropriate but rather why it is that we find the new Introit not as ingenious and dazzlingly creative. It cannot be because the melody is a new composition, for it is not. It could be because the words and the notes were artificially brought together rather than developing in tandem. I am not sure what the answer is, but I have a feeling that the manner in which we answer it will in part decide how we respond to the necessary question of developing propers for new feast days that will eventually be added to the calendar. These are questions certainly worth pondering.

  9. Jeffrey:
    The Introit for the octave of St Lawrence is "Probasti Domine" found on Page 586 of my 1952 Roman Gradual, or, since most octaves were suppressed following the Council, it was re-assigned to a pool of Commons of Martyrs outside of Pascal time as on page 474 of the 1974 Graduale Triplex.
    Incidentally, the other Propers for the St. Lawrence octave as found in the old GR are: Gradual- Gloria et honore; Alleluia- Levita Laurentius; Offertory- In Virtute tua; Communion- Qui vult venire.
    Personally, the final 1974 version as far as the Proper texts of the Assumption are concerned are the most noble for the re-habilitated feast. Of course the issue is the melody for the new texts; the options you give are certainly the best ones to chose from. Let me give you some historical guidance on this if I can.
    If one follows McKinnon's Advent Project history on this, the Roman Schola Contorum started re-using their previously composed melodies to complete the annual cycle of Propers when they started running out of creative steam. Once the Franks got hold of all these melodies they readily simplified and modified them to suit their "tastes" and theoretical exigencies, so that by the end of the Carolingian renaissance we had quite a different version of chant made available to the Universal Church. What I think stumped any further creativity, what fossilised the chant repertoire in other words, happened after the mid 9th century, when John the Deacon (of Rome) claimed that chant was composed by St Gregory the Great (and legend added while he listened to an angel) so chant subsequently became thought of as of divine origin. As such, there was some reluctance to touch the existing chant repertoire except by papal intervention, and mostly additions such as with the Commons, Sequences, hymns, tropes, etc thereafter played the major role. Polyphony became an alternative, but chant itself remained fairly untouched for a long time (despite its later inadvertent corruption).
    What I would make of this is that the safest option in view of history is the one used for Signum Magnum. But we suspect today that John the Deacon may not have been correct in his historical accounts of St Gregory and chant. In light of this, I would certainly like to see attempts made at composing new melodies as well as borrowing and adapting ancient formulas and melodies (symbolism and word-painting in mind here) for new texts, the kind of work the Roman Schola and the Franks did, and let time be the editor of quality. My preference would be to keep the unique "style" of the music of Gregorian chant ever present in the Western Church, a "style" that is very suitable for the prayer of the Universal Church being timeless, relevant both to modern and ancient times and places. (I hesitate using the word "style" because of its modern relativistic implications). Just some thoughts, albeit problematic ones.

  10. I was curious about the source of the Communion melody for the new text Beatam me dicent of the Assumption. It begins with an adaptation of the Communion Honora Dominum of Pentecost XI, but most of it is from the Communion Ecce Dominus of the Friday of Advent Ember days. An important symbol was lost in the adaptation from the latter, where for the word "lux" we have the FA-MI-SOL-LA melodic formula (transposed a 5th higher), making reference to the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ as the great light mentioned in the text. For the word "qui" in the new text this musical word symbolism becomes meaningless.
    Also, for those who think the old Communion Optimam was better, its melody was also used for Dico autem vobis of the Common of many Martyrs, and more recently became used for the text of the Communion for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Gloriosa at the time of Pius IX.
    The Communion Optimam was not the one used at Notre-Dame for the Feast of the Assumption, by the way, but Dilexisti justitiam was used instead, at least according to Dom Cardine.
    I hope I have not fed the fires of confusion with all this.

  11. The name of the composer of Signum magnum is Fr. Claude Gay, who assisted in the development of the new Antiphonale Monasticum. Dom Saulnier considers the composition a great success, for what that's worth.

    Gaudeamus, of course, is itself an adaptation of an introit that began life for the feast of St. Agnes, I think. Of course it has been extended for many occasions since. It was probably thought that a feast as important as the Assumption deserved its own introit text rather than the generic Gaudeamus. Similar justifications have been given for the large number of hymns composed in the 20th c. for the new LoH – due to accidents of history important feasts had generic hymns while obscure saints had their own texts.

    The current arrangement, whereby we can choose between Gaudeamus and Signum Magnum, seems sensible to me.

  12. Jake lists several options for the chants for new feasts, and states that when a new feast is added to the calendar, "new Propers will need [to be] composed."

    I don't see this as necessary, and in fact that has not been the practice in the new Graduale. Already, in order to purge the repertoire "neo-Gregorian" compositions, the "new" (1974) Graduale selects most of the propers for saints from a list of commons (of Our Lady, apostles, martyrs, etc.). So when a new feast is added, the propers (with few exceptions) are taken from these common chants. You can see this clearly if you page through the Proper of the Saints in the new Graduale.

    For example, the propers for St. Maximilian Kolbe (canonized in 1982) are taken from common chants or those already assigned to other days. There are no new compositions. The same is true for other more recent feasts, where later compositions have been replaced by common chants (e.g. St Therese on Oct 1).

  13. Just to clarify, one of the options I listed was to use pre-existing melodies for the Propers of the new feast. This was the first options I gave: "take a pre-existing set of propers and simply use it for the new feast day in addition to where they are currently in use".

    As Sam points out, this is only "new" in the sense that the feast is new and needs Propers assigned to it, but the compositions are not new at all. In my comments, I did not give preference to any of the options I listed, and certainly the option of using already existing melodies can be appropriate. While I have not thought much about it, my initial tendency is to agree with Sam for the addition of new Saint feasts. For the addition of a solemnity, however, one could argue that the magnitude of the event warrants its own set of Propers, not those taken from the commons, which is similar to what Robert observed in the case of the Signum magnum.

  14. Sam:
    "in order to purge the repertoire (of) "neo-Gregorian" compositions".
    You are right about this of the 1974 Gradual, but it probably puts me in a small minority of those who are opposed to such efforts of eradication. Should the Gregorian books be the results of an archeological dig, or should they represent a living tradition held throughout the centuries? And if the latter, to what extent? I support the idea of a living tradition for chant; neo-Gregorian compositions are part of that living tradition. I am not speaking of the corrupted editions of chant before Solesmes took charge, but even these too can have their value at times.
    SC did call for critical editions of the chant books. Exactly what that means is another issue, but I would be astonished if it meant archeoligism, although I am sure some would label some of the liturgical reforms that way. What it probably meant is restoring the most ancient melodies that were found to be corrupted through time, and resolving the question of rhythm. Yet either task is highly problematic. Solesmes seems to have taken it to mean in part as eradicating neo-Gregorianisms, and for me that is unfortunate since that itself strictly speaking is not possible in view of the new texts. In this context, they would unlikely be receptive to composing fresh Gregorian melodies to the new texts at this point.

  15. A fascinating discussion. It may be worth mentioning that the Graduale Triplex cross-references the sources of most of the compositions that have been discussed on this thread, as well as many others.

    Another fairly recent set of propers is the one for the feast of Christ the King, which was only instituted in the 1920s. For instance, the Introit Dignus est Agnus was adapted from Dum sanctificatus, from the vigil of Pentecost, also by Dom Pothier, if memory serves.

    I would be curious to know what might have been the last (to date) composition/adaptation of new propers? The 1950 Assumption changes were late. Just looking at the feast of St Pius X (canonized in the 1950s), none of the propers in my 1961 Graduale are in the index of the 1979 Graduale Triplex. It strikes me that there may not have been another occasion for new propers between 1950 and Vatican II. Does anyone know?

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