They consist of a series of antiphons, sung in this case by the choir, alternating with responses sung to Gregorian chant by a few cantors. They can be sung entirely to chant, but we use the Renaissance setting by the Spanish composer Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), in which the antiphons are sung in four-part harmony, contrasting with the unison chant for the verses. These have all been adapted into English, except for the Greek Trisagion, which we sing partly in the original Greek (as we do when we sing the Kyrie in Greek at Mass in Lent). The text begins:
O my people, what have I done unto thee?
And how have I offended thee?
Testify against me.
I led thee forth out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom;
But thou hast prepared a cross for thy Savior.
The choir then sings the Trisagion:
Holy and mighty,
Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.
The verses continue:
Because I led thee through the desert forty years,
And fed thee with manna,
And brought thee into a land exceeding good:
Thou hast prepared a cross for thy Savior.
After each verse the choir continues to respond; there are as many as fourteen verses, depending on the time taken up by the Veneration; then the choir sings in Latin the setting of Crux
Fidelis attributed to John IV of Portugal (1604-1656). While we know that John IV was a composer and patron of the arts, there is no real evidence that he wrote this piece. The music, in four parts, may be a sort of nineteenth-century forgery, but it certainly is beautiful. The sixth-century text, a hymn to the Cross, is by St. Venantius Fortunatus (530-609), Bishop of Poitiers, and is also part of the Pange lingua hymn which we then sing as the Blessed Sacrament is brought from the Altar of Repose:
Faithful Cross! Above all other, one and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none is blossom, none in fruit thy peer may be:
Sweetest wood and sweetest iron! Sweetest weight is hung on thee.
This is the text, the first verse beginning “Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle,” which, hundreds of years later, inspired St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) to write another other hymn beginning with the same words, Pange lingua, which we know as “Now, my tongue, the mystery telling,” a Eucharistic hymn always sung on Maundy Thursday to the same 14th-century plainsong melody used now for the older hymn by Fortunatus.