Christus Vincit: Music for the Feast of 
Christ the King (Part 1 of 2)

Guest Article by Thomas Neal

The feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King is a relatively recent addition to the liturgical calendar. Promulgated by Pope Pius XI with his encyclical, Quas primas, in 1925, the feast was assigned to the last Sunday in October immediately before the feasts of All Saints (1 November) and All Souls (2 November), and given the rank of a Double of the First Class. In the 1960 revision of the liturgical calendar, which introduced a simplified ranking of feasts, Christ the King was designated as First Class. In 1969, Pope Paul VI renamed the feast Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, raised it to the newly-instituted and highest rank of a solemnity and assigned it to the last Sunday of the liturgical year. In both forms of the Roman Rite, the vestments are coloured white or gold/silver.

The feast serves as a reminder of the social reign of Christ the King and seeks to encourage the faithful to form their lives, in real terms, after the Christian ideal— two fundamental tenets of traditional Christianity from the earliest times but which needed fresh articulation in the face of the political and socio-economic turmoil of the early 20th century. Thus, this new addition to the liturgical calendar became a wonderful example of how the observance of feasts, rooted in tradition and internalised by the faithful, can be a powerful tool in combatting the crisis of modernity.

As we approach the centenary of Quas primas and ponder not only the crises of the world but also the crisis in the Church, it is instructive to consider the choices made by our 20th-century forebears in creating the chant propers for Christ the King. Rather than compose new melodies for a new feast, our 20th-century forebears drew on chants, or fragments of chants, from multiple ancient sources.


The Introit antiphon text, Dignus est Agnus, is taken from the Book of Revelation (5. 12 and 1. 6) and frames the first verse of Psalm 71 (Deus, judicium). The music is borrowed and adapted from the Introit for the Wednesday (Feria IV) after the Fourth Sunday in Lent: Dum sanctificatus. The first two bars (Dignus est Agnus, qui occisus est) are copied with only minor alterations. Following a small deviation, presumably composed by the editors, the two musical texts reunite at et divinitatem. The second half of the text (from Ipsi gloria to saeculorum) required more extensive alterations; the melody corresponds to the passage from et mundabimini to vestris. As the text of the Lenten Introit is more extensive than that for Christ the King, the editors had to end the melody here, adopting a standard cadential formula to complete the phrase (a version of which can also be seen on novum in the former chant). The tone for the following psalm verse, of course, required no alteration.


The text of the Gradual for the new feast, Dominabitur, is again taken from Psalm 71 (8, 11). Appropriately, the text was set to the melody of the Gradual for Epiphany, Omnes de Saba venient, the other feast which honours the royal Kingship of Christ. Only very minor alterations were required to fit the ‘new’ text to the older melody, such as lengthening or shortening individual notes or melismas. The two chants are substantially the same.

The only editorial addition which arguably jars with the surrounding material is at the opening of the verse (Et adorabunt eum), where the 20th-century editor, presumably wanting to reserve the strength of Do (the ‘tonic’ or key note of the mode) for the first strong syllable (Et adorabunt), set the preceding three syllables (Et adorabunt) to the standard incipit for the mode V psalm tone. A more satisfying solution, I would argue, would have been to open the phrase on the Do, just like the original Epiphany chant (on the word Surge).


A beautiful text from the Book of Daniel (7. 14) was chosen for the Alleluia verse: “His power shall be an everlasting power, which shall not be taken away; and His kingdom a kingdom that shall not decay.” Perhaps it was this triumphal imagery which suggested to the compilers of the new liturgy an Alleluia from Paschaltide. They chose the Alleluia II (traditionally the Gradual and Alleluia are replaced by two Alleluias from Easter to Pentecost) from the Fourth Sunday of Easter: Alleluia. Christus resurgens. The ‘new’ text fits the older melody extremely well, with only minor alterations of the types already discussed. We might be tempted to question the editors’ decision to allocate that beautiful, long, and expressive melisma on the word et, when in the Paschal original it had served a more dramatic effect setting the word mors; a more satisfying solution would have placed et on a single-note anacrusis, reserving the melisma for the first syllable of regnum. But such text-setting, however foreign to 21st-century ears, is not without precedent in the oldest chant repertoire.


The Offertory chant, Postula a me (Psalm 2. 8) presents a more complex case of musical borrowing, fusing together phrases from three sources. The melody of the opening line (Postula a me, et dabo tibi Gentes) is taken from the Offertory for the Third Mass of Christmas (Tui sunt coeli, et tua est terra); while the remainder of the chant (from the words hereditatem tuam) can be located in the offertory for the First Mass of Christmas, i.e. ‘Midnight’ Mass, Laetentur coeli (from et exsultet onwards).

It is tempting to speculate that the chant from the Third Mass of Christmas, at least, was chosen with its original text in mind. It speaks of the heavens and the earth as Christ’s royal dominion: “Thine are the heavens, and Thine is the earth, the world and the fullness thereof Thou hast founded: justice and judgement are the preparation of Thy throne” (Psalm 88. 12, 15). The fact that both melodies are cast in mode IV was, of course, a musical prerequisite for their selection and combination: it would not be possible to combine melodies in different modes.


The Communion chant, Sedebit Dominus (Psalm 28. 10, 11) presents a substantially altered version of the Communion from the Friday in Ember Week of Advent, Ecce Dominus veniet. For the feast of Christ the King, the editors first recomposed the opening incipit using a standard formula (which can be seen, for example, in the Communion for Ember Saturday in Advent, Exultavit ut gigas). From the second word of the ‘new’ text, Dominus, the melody follows the basic contours of the Advent chant (onwards from the word sancti in the latter).

In drawing on verses from Sacred Scripture and chants from the established body of Gregorian repertory, 20th-century liturgists and music editors adhered to the principle that all legitimate and authentic innovations or reforms must develop from, and be bound to, tradition. I do not believe that even the most trained ears would attribute any aspect of these chants to the early 20th century, so clearly do they adhere to liturgical tradition. In this sense, the chant propers for the feast of Christ the King provide a model for all Catholic musicians and liturgists. In Part 2, I will explore and compare Gregorian and polyphonic settings of another ancient text and melody: the Laudes regiae.

All images of chant scores are taken from the Graduale sacrosanctae Romanae Ecclesiae (Dusseldorf: P. Schwann, 1958), which is out of copyright and can be downloaded for free via Corpus Christi Watershed.


Thomas Neal took his BA and MPhil degrees in Music from Clare College, Cambridge, where he was John Stewart of Rannoch Scholar in Sacred Music. He has since developed a career in education and in 2018 was appointed Director of Music at New College School, Oxford. Thomas has researched and written widely on music and culture in sixteenth-century Rome, with a particular interest in the life and works of Giovanni Pierluigi 'da Palestrina'; he is currently researching a biography of the composer and compiling a new catalogue raisonné. Thomas is also active as a conductor and keyboardist. He lives in Oxford with his wife and son.

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