John Gayford prepares for Easter
The Solemn Exultet is a triumphant hymn and a wonderful prelude to the Easter solemnities. It proclaims the resurrection of Christ. There is a dramatic invitation for heaven and earth to join the Church in jubilation. The rite is a sanctification of light, of this holy night and of this place and time. A jewel of Easter sacramental liturgy, it is brilliant in content and composition, filled with profound theology and symbolism for the celebration of our Lord’s resurrection. The Gregorian chant flows with solemn rhythms resounding in jubilant cadences.
The Exultet goes under a number of names: Praeconium Paschale (Paschal Proclamation), Benedictio Ceres (Blessing of the Candle) and Laus Ceres (Praise of the Candle). As a jewel of Easter liturgy, it has its own glorious liturgical and musical history. It has been described as having the dignity of the gospel (with all standing) and of an anaphora (Eucharistic prayer or offering).
The Exultet was usually sung by the deacon standing by the paschal candle on Holy Saturday. In ancient times the spotlight was very much on the deacon, who wore white or gold (possibly representing the angel at the tomb) while the other sacred ministers wore purple in this first part of the Easter liturgy. The bishop himself rarely sang; usually a deacon (with a young, flexible voice) allowed for a more melismatic and lengthy sustained chant.
Journel explains: ‘The second expansion of the Western Easter Vigil was of a lucernarium or lighting of the Easter candle, introduced as an opening rite. The lighting of lamps at nightfall, then a daily family ritual, brought joy and security. The Jews used the ritual at the start of the Friday evening meal marking the beginning of the Sabbath. Christians thought of this evening light as an image of Christ the Light of the world. Beginning in the fourth century, the lighting of the lamp became usual at the beginning of Christian community meals. The holiest night of the year could not be allowed to begin without a solemn celebration of light. In the time of Jerome and Augustine, this ritual had become part of the Vigil in Africa and Northern Italy, and probably in Spain and Gaul. The offering of the light to illumine the nocturnal vigil was accompanied by a proclamation of paschal joy sung by a deacon in the form of a lengthy thanksgiving. That is how the Exultet was born.’
Kelly describes the development of the Exultet in two phases. In the first phase in the fourth century in some regions (but not by that time in Rome) the deacon composed his own words and music. There are claims that St Augustine composed his own and quotes it in De civitate Dei (413–426) written in hexameters.
Seemingly some deacons sought well-polished texts and Praesidius of Piacenza made an unsuccessful appeal to St Jerome in 384. According to Kelly: ‘He was evidently expected to produce a prayer every Easter; the text was not ﬁxed, and he was no doubt seeking the highest quality in appealing to Jerome. He probably did not expect such a caustic reply. Jerome did not like this kind of composition at all: it did not have authority of scripture when praising creation or the work of the bees (for wax) the latter being borrowed from Virgil. Indeed, he did not use candles: a Paschal candle was not blessed with a freely invented prayer at Rome; moreover, there was not even a candle to bless. Jerome says that the praeconium paschale is a difﬁcult matter and that no one had done it well; he has evidently heard several unsuccessful versions. He refused Praesidius’ request for a written praeconium but agreed to help him orally.’
It was not until the seventh or eighth centuries that a second phase of a fixed text was used, but this varied greatly from region to region. Kelly states that the texts of the Roman and Beneventan Exultet were written in prose that used melodious cadences at the end of textural passages. Medieval tradition ascribed the fixed text to many different sources, including Saints Augustine and Ambrose, and even suggest that Jerome relented and added to the composition, though he objected to a deacon blessing the candle while bishop and priests stood idly by.
Chupungeo proposes that Ennodius, Bishop of Pavis, composed two, but the most popular was from the eighth century Gallican Sacramentary introduced in Rome and is the basis of what is now used. Thus the Exultet did not originate in Rome, though Pope Zosimus (a Greek) did give permission for deacons to bless the paschal candle.
The various texts of the Exultet can be divided into five parts, each musically distinct. The prologue opens with an invitation for heaven and earth to trumpet the salvation of the resurrection: ‘tanti Regis Victoria insonet salutaris.’ There is a hint of a Gallacian apologia prayer with the words ‘Ut, qui me non meis meritis.’ This is followed by a preface as at Mass. The long peroration which follows shows great geographical variation. It may speak of Adam’s sin, work of the bees, celebration of the natural world, the work of salvation or the mystery of this night. Five times the phrase ‘Haec nox est’ is used and later ‘O vere beata nox.’ Seven effects of the light of the risen Christ, symbolized by the light of the candle, are briefly enumerated and underline the holiness of this night ‘when heaven is wedded to earth,’ summarized as the banishment of evil, sin, hatred and sorrow, the restoration of innocence and peace; and the humbling of the haughty. In ancient times the text may even have contained a blessing of the donors of candle and scroll (both very expensive) followed by a prayer for the Holy Roman Emperor. Finally there is a doxology, which again varied regionally. It is perhaps worth noting again that it is the deacon who is blessing the candle, despite Jerome’s objections.
Kelly gives a lovely description of the music: ‘The south Italian Exultet has one of the simplest melodies ever written: it uses only three adjacent pitches. A complete performance of the Exultet might last twenty minutes; the effect of the seemingly endless musical repetitions is potentially mesmerizing. And yet this melody is so intimately bound up with the text that even the unfamiliar listener is soon made aware that the melody serves to heighten and underscore the larger and smaller phraseology of the text, and is eventually drawn into an understanding of the performance as a sort of heightened speech or formal recitation, where the importance is on the shape of the poetical text being presented.’
The oldest known musical notation for the Exultet is, not surprisingly, after the tenth century, but text alone from the seventh and eighth centuries and from preserved manuscripts again show considerable variation. Kelly discusses the differences between Beneventan and Roman versions.
The study of Exultet scrolls is fascinating. This rotulus may be of papyrus, leather or parchment and is usually wound round a central baton called an umbilicus. The scrolls could be vertical or horizontal and were not the sole preserve of the Exultet. They could be used for other liturgical functions in Byzantine liturgy but also in charters, diplomas, council reports, obituary rolls, maps and for many other important documents. By about 300AD the codex (book form) had practically replaced the scroll. Nevertheless a scroll gives the document special importance. Where they are unique is in the use of pictures that are inserted upside down in scrolls used by a deacon singing the Exultet from the raised ambo. He allowed the vertical scroll to flow over the forward edge, allowing the congregation to see the pictures the right way up.
These documents are of almost unparalleled luxury and could measure the full length of an animal’s skin, and when skins were joined could stretch up to 27 feet. The structure of the ambo at the new basilica of Montecassino dedicated in 1071 is described by Kelly: ‘The new pulpit, for reading and singing, was reached by six steps; it was decorated with colour and with gold leaf. In front of it was the Paschal candlestick, a partially gilded silver column on a porphyry base, six cubits high, on which was mounted the great candle to be blessed on Holy Saturday.’ My account takes us through the first millennium of the Exultet in the western church but gives no consideration of its history and use in the eastern churches. In more modern times it may come as a surprise that there are Lutheran and some Methodist versions of the Exultet.
Few of us have been blessed to hear or witness the Solemn Exultet sung in full, in Latin, in a large cathedral or basilica from a raised ambo lit by a large candle swirling with clouds of incense, sung by a solo flexible male voice without amplification. If you want comments on how it should be sung in modern terms you will find the comments brief. Elliot adds the following helpful footnote: ‘Singing the Exsultet requires not only skill but a sense of the rhythm of the music and words. It is not meant to be slow or heavy, but rather sustained by a subtle light and joyous style.’ He also adds another useful practical tip not often found in liturgical manuals: ‘A server with a flashlight (LED) may assist him (the deacon) if the light is inadequate.’
The Revd Dr John Gayford is a retired priest and writes on matters liturgical.