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What *is* an Introit Chant? Si iniquitates (28th Sunday of Ordinary Time)

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

introit procession at Westminster Cathedral

Entrance procession at Westminster Cathedral

introitus (Latin): a going in, entering, entrance

The introit chant is a song which is traditionally sung at the beginning of the Mass, to accompany the procession of the priest and servers from the vestibule (back of the church) into the sanctuary. Processions were very popular in medieval times. It was by means of a procession that a body of people would take ownership of a space. The entrance procession at Mass has even deeper significance, due to its destination: the altar. From ancient times, the altar has been the place where humanity submits to its divine Creator and Lord, by sacrificing the fruits of its labor, the best of the flock, and ultimately in offering up the Lamb of God.

Now, in the earliest Christian liturgies, the entrance procession would be accompanied by the singing of a lengthy text (usually a psalm). A soloist would sing verses, interspersed with a short, easily remembered antiphon which the entire congregation would sing.

This format changed when the early persecution of the Christians was ended. Once liturgies could be held safely in public, musicians came forward to offer their best, and the schola cantorum was born. The Liturgy became the object of elaborate compositions and improvisations, sung by members of the schola. Over time the schola took on the responsibility for singing the antiphons too. Eventually these intricate, extended melodies diminished the amount of text able to be sung, sometimes to the degree that only the antiphon remained.

Si iniquitates American Gradual

Adaptation by Bruce Ford in the American Gradual (c) 2020

Enter the subject of this blog post: the introit Si iniquitates. Si iniquitates is the third verse of Psalm 129 (or 130, depending upon your translation). Psalm 129 is one of seven penitential psalms, and is an integral part of the Jewish High Holidays. In the Christian tradition, Psalm 129 plays a pivotal role in the Office of the Dead, and also towards the end of the liturgical year — just before the Solemnity of Christ the King. This final season within the liturgical year of the Church corresponds to one's personal life journey. The psalm hauntingly expresses the plight of a soul torn by despair and hope just before meeting judgment before its King:

1. De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine;

Out of the depths I have cried to thee, O Lord:

2. Domine, exaudi vocem meam. Fiant aures tuæ intendentes in vocem deprecationis meæ.

Lord, hear my voice. Let thy ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication.

3. Si iniquitates observaveris, Domine, Domine, quis sustinebit?

If thou, O Lord, wilt mark iniquities: Lord, who shall stand it.

4. Quia apud te propitiatio est; et propter legem tuam sustinui te, Domine. Sustinuit anima mea in verbo ejus;

For with thee there is merciful forgiveness: and by reason of thy law, I have waited for thee, O Lord. My soul hath relied on his word:

5. speravit anima mea in Domino.

My soul hath hoped in the Lord.

6. A custodia matutina usque ad noctem, speret Isræl in Domino;

From the morning watch even until night, let Israel hope in the Lord.

7. quia apud Dominum misericordia, et copiosa apud eum redemptio.

Because with the Lord there is mercy: and with him plentiful redemption.

8. Et ipse redimet Isræl ex omnibus iniquitatibus ejus.

And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

Though not a particularly lengthy passage, Psalm 129 underwent the same process of text condensation + melodic elaboration by the schola described earlier. The first verse, De profundis...Domine appears in the body of Gregorian chant separately as an alleluia verse, a tract (sung instead of an alleluia in seasons where alleluia is forbidden, such as Lent), and an offertory chant.

The third verse of the psalm, si iniquitates, appears as an introit text. Now, each Sunday and holyday has its own assigned introit, with a unique, proper text (hence the terms propers of the Mass, and proper antiphons). The introit gives a general theme for the day. Sometimes the theme is very specific, such as Puer natus est nobis (a child is born for us) or Resurrexi. At other times, it sets a general theme, as is the case for Si iniquitates.

Introit: Si iniquitates

Si iniquitates, introit for the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time / 22nd Sunday after Pentecost

A person does not have to know how to read music in order to appreciate the artful melodic painting found in this chant. The antiphon constitutes the first three lines: "Si iniquitates....Deus Israel" up to the Ps., which indicates where a psalm verse may be added, to extend the length of time which the chant covers. Take a look at the middle of the second line, at sustinebit? Do you see the full bar, the vertical bar extending from the top horizontal line down to the bottom horizontal line? This full bar is marking an important break in the text and in the melody.

Si iniquitates observaveris, Domine, Domine, quis sustinebit?

If thou, O Lord, wilt mark iniquities: Lord, who shall stand it.

Quia apud te propitiatio est, Deus Israel.

Because with the Lord there is mercy, O God of Israel.

Now, look at what the melody is doing in the text preceding the full bar. It's hovering around the top of its range, with the final pitch landing on the top of the four horizontal lines. In chant, the end of a melodic incise such as this usually descends a bit lower. Here, it plaintively hangs in the upper register: a musical question mark demanding a response. After the full bar, the melody starts its characteristic descent, until it finds its ultimate resting place at the end of "Deus Israel".

Truly, only in God are our hearts at rest.

A beautiful description of this chant can be found in The Chants of the Vatican Gradual by Dom Johner, pp. 342 & 343 (or PDF pages 355-356). Click here to listen to a recording of the chant.

The musical question mark is even more pronounced when viewing a restored version of this chant, where we see the haunting movement from B --> C (ti --> do) heralded in the opening incise, with hints of the same present after the half bar as well.

Si iniquitates Graduale Novum

If you enjoy manuscripts, here are a few. They illustrate the gradual development of chant notation over the centuries. (Special thanks to the Cantus Index for these images.)

Si iniquitates Saint Gallen

Saint Gallen, tenth century

Si iniquitates Autun

Autun, twelfth century

Si iniquitates Graduale Cisterciense

Graduale Cisterciense, thirteenth century

The mission of the International Chant Academy is to keep the beauty and meaningfulness of Gregorian Chant and Early Sacred Music alive and relevant. We foster understanding of these art forms, and teach the musical and vocal skills necessary to excellent performance.

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