Litany Definition

Litany (Old English, Letanie; Latin, Lilaniae, Greek, a Supplication).

A litany is a solemn form of prayer; sung, by solo voices and choir, alternately.

The origin of the litany can be traced back to a period of very remote antiquity. Its use was, probably, first instituted in the East, and it retained even in the West its Greek respond ‘Kyrie eleison.’

Starting from this response as a nucleus the litany developed a number of special petitions with varying refrains; at a later stage it incorporated a number of invocations of saints, which grew so largely in bulk as to overshadow at times the older petitions.

The litany was the first form of Prayer to be translated in England at the Reformation.

The invocations of saints were first cut down to very small proportions in order to restore the ancient character of the litany, and then subsequently were cut out altogether.

The English translation was first published, without musical notes, in the reign of Henry VIII., on May 27, 1544, five years before the appearance of King Edward the Sixth’s ‘First Prayer Book.’ Three weeks later – on June 16 – another copy, with the Plain-song annexed, was printed, in London, by Grafton; the Priest’s part in black notes, and that for the choir in red.

It would seem, however, that the congregations of that day were not quite satisfied with unisonous Plain-song; for, before the end of the year, Grafton produced a third copy, set for five voices, ‘according to the notes used in the Kynges Chapel.’

This early translation was, in all probability, the work of Archbishop Cranmer, who refers to it in a letter preserved in the Record Office. And, as he recommends the notes ( or similar ones ) to be sung in a certain new procession which he had prepared by the King’s command, there is little doubt that it was he who first adapted the English words to the ancient Plain-song. If this surmise be correct, it supplies a sufficient reason for the otherwise unaccountable omission of the litany in Marbeck’s ‘Booke of common Praier Noted.’

In the year 1560 – and again in 1565 – John Day printed, under the title of ‘Certaine notes set forth in foure and three partes, to be song at the Morning Communion, and Evening Prayer,’ a volume of church music, containing a litany, for four voices by Robert Stone, and then gentleman of the Chapel Royal.

According to the custom of the time, the Canto fermo was placed in the Tenor, and enriched with simple, but exceedingly pure and euphonious harmonies.

The Rev. J. Jebb carefully reproduced this interesting composition in his ‘Choral Responses and Litanies,’ together with another litany by Byrd (given on the authority of a MS. preserved in the Library of Ely Cathedral), and several others of scarcely inferior merit.

The only parts of Byrd’s litany now remaining are, the Cantus and Bassus.

All of these litanies, however, and many others of which only a few fragments now remain to use, were destined soon to give place to the still finer setting by Thomas Tallis.

Without entering into the controversy to which this work has given rise, we may assume it as proved, beyond all possibility of doubt, that the words were originally set by Tallis in four parts, with the plain-song in the Tenor.

In this form, both the litany and the preces are still extant in the ‘Clifford MS.’ (dated 1570), on the authority of which they are instead in the valuable collection of ‘Choral Responses’. However, puzzling the consecutive fifths in the response are, ‘And mercifully hear us when we call upon Thee,’ and the chord of the 4/2 in ‘We beseech Thee to hear us, Good Lord,’ we cannot but believe that the venerable transcription is, on the whole, trustworthy.

Tallis’s first Invocation from the ‘Clifford MS.’ is, alone, sufficient to show the grandeur of the composer’s conception.

More than one writer has condemned the celebrated five part litany printed by Dr. Boyce as an impudent corruption of this four-part text. Dean Aldrich went as far as to assure Dr. Fell, in a letter still extant, that ‘Barnard was the first who despoil it.’ The assertion was a rash one.

It is too late, now, to ascertain, with any approach to probability, the source of Barnard’s version, printed in 1641, was the first instance derived. There are, in truth, grave difficulties in the way of forming any decided opinion upon the subject.

Were the weakness of an unpracticed hand anywhere discernible in the counterpoint of the later composition, one might well reject it as an ‘arrangement’; but it would be absurd to suppose that any musician capable of deducing the five part response, ‘Good Lord, deliver us,’ from that in four parts, would have condescended to build his work upon another man’s foundation.

The next response, ‘We beseech Thee to hear us, Good Lord,’ presents a still more serious crux. The Catno fermo of this differs so widely from any known version of the plain-song melody that we are compelled to regard the entire response as an original composition.

No, so far as the Cantus and Bassus are concerned, the two litanies correspond, at this point, exactly; but, setting all prejudices aside, and admitting the third chord in the ‘Clifford MS.’ to be a manifest lapsus calami, we have no choice but to confess, that with respect to the mean voices, the advantage lies entirely on the side of the five part harmony.

The difficulties we have pointed with regard to these two responses apply, with scarcely diminished force, to all the rest; and, the more closely we investigate the internal evidence afforded by the double text, the more certainly shall we be driven to the only conclusion deducible from it: namely, that Tallis has left us two litanies, one for four voices, and the other for five, both founded on the same Plain-song, and both harmonized on the same basses, though developed, in other respects, in accordance with the promptings of two totally distinct ideas.

The four part litany has never, we believe, been published in a separate form. The best edition of that in five parts is, undoubtedly, Dr. Boyce’s; though Messrs. Oliphant, and John Bishop, did a good service, in their respective reprints, by adapting, to the music of the Preces, those ‘latter Suffrages,’ which, having no place in the First Prayer Book of King Edward VI., were not set by any of the old composers.