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Definition and description

Trope, in the liturgico-hymnological sense, is a collective name which, since about the close of the Middle Ages or a little later, has been applied to texts of great variety (in both poetry and prose) written for the purpose of amplifying and embellishing an independently complete liturgical text (e.g. the Introit, the Kyrie, Gloria, Gradual, or other parts of the Mass or of the Office sung by the choir). These additions are closely attached to the official liturgical text, but in no way do they change the essential character of it; they are entwined in it, augmenting and elucidating it; they are, as it were, a more or less poetical commentary that is woven into the liturgical text, forming with it a complete unit. Thus in France and England, instead of the liturgical text "Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth" the lines sung were:

  1. Sanctus ex quo sunt omnia;
  2. Sanctus, per quem sunt omnia;
  3. Sanctus, in quo sunt omnia; Dominus Deus Sabaoth, tibi gloria sit in saecula.

The most accurate definition, applicable to all the different kinds of Tropes, might be the following: A Trope is an interpolation in a liturgical text, or the embellishment brought about by interpolation (i.e. by introductions, insertions, or additions). Herein lies the difference between the Trope and the closely-related Sequence or Prose. The Sequence also is an embellishment of the liturgy, an insertion between liturgical chants (the Gradual and the Gospel), originating about the eighth century; the Sequence is thus an interpolation in the liturgy, but it is not an interpolation in a liturgical text. The Sequence is an independent unit, complete in itself; the Trope, however, forms a unit only in connection with a liturgical text, and when separated from the latter is often devoid of any meaning. Accordingly the several Tropes are named after that liturgical text to which they belong, viz. Trope of the Kyrie, Trope of the Gloria, Trope of the Agnus Dei, etc.

Originally there existed no uniform name for that which is now combined under the idea and name of Tropus. Only the interpolations of the Introit, the Offertory, and the Communion were called Tropi (trophi, tropos, trophos), and even that not exclusively but only predominantly; for the Introit Trope was frequently called "Versus in psalmis", the Offertory Trope also "Prosa [or prosula] ad [or ante] Offerenda". To all the other interpolations a great variety of names was applied, as "Prosaede Kyrieleison", or "Versus ad Kyrieleison", = Kyrie Tropes; "Laudes" (Lauda, laus), "Gloria cum laudes", "Laudes cum tropis", or simply "Ad Gloria", = Gloria Tropes; "Laudes ad Sanctus", "Versus super Sanctus", = Sanctus Tropes; "Laudes de Agnus Dei", "Prosa ad Agnus Dei", = Agnus Tropes; "Epistola cum Versibus", "Versus super epistolam", = Epistle Trope (Epître farcie); "Verba", or "Verbeta", or "Prosella", = Breviary Trope. How and when the general name of Tropus sprang up, has not yet been exactly ascertained. And just as little has the priority been established of the different kinds of interpolations, whether that in the Introit is the oldest, or that in the Gloria, or the Kyrie, or in any other part of the Mass; for that very reason it is not known yet which of the various designations (Versus, Prosae, Tropi, or Laudes) is the oldest and most original.

One thing is certain: the Latin Tropus is a word borrowed from the Greek tropos. The latter was a musical term, and denoted a melody (tropos lydios, phrygios = Lydian, Phrygian, Doric melody), or in general a musical change, like the Latin modus or modulus, similar to the international "modulation". It is quite conceivable that the name of the melody was transferred to the text which had been composed to it, as is the case with the word Sequentia. In reasoning thus, one would have to presuppose that over one syllable of a liturgical text, e.g. over the e of the Kyrie, a longer melisma was sung, which bore the name of tropus; furthermore, that to such a melisma a text was composed later on, and that this text was also called "Tropus". And it is an actual fact that from early times such melismata existed over a vowel of the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Sanctus, etc.; likewise there were many texts which were produced for these melismata, consequently they were interpolations. But the date when these melismata of the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, etc., were first called "Tropi" is still a matter of research; what we know is that the texts under that kind of melisma which has just been described were not called "Tropi" from the earliest times. On the contrary, by the name of "Tropi" were originally designated the interpolations of precisely those parts of the Mass which do not exhibit any long melismata, as the Introit and Offertory. To give an example, an interpolation of the Christmas Introit written in prose, reads: Ecce, adest de quo prophetae cecinerunt dicentes;

Puer natus est nobis,

Quem virgo Maria genuit,

Et filius datus est nobis, etc.

The first introductory phrase of this and similar interpolations, particularly when it comprises an entire stanza, as, e.g.,

Laudemus omnes Dominum,
Qui virginis per uterum
Parvus in mundum venerat
Mundum regens, quem fecerat,
Puer natus est nobis, etc.

cannot possibly be considered as text to an already existing melisma which was called "Tropus", and which then gave its name to the text that was put to it. And yet, just such interpolations of the Introit and the Offertory were called "Tropi". In this article it must suffice to allude to these difficulties, on the solution of which will depend the theory of the origin and the early development of the "Tropi". As yet no definite theory can be advanced, although several writers on liturgy, music, and hymnology have been so confident as to make assertions for which there is absolutely no ground.


On the basis of the two choir books for the Mass and the Breviary, namely the Gradual and the Antiphonal, Tropes are divided into two large classes: "Tropi Graduales" and "Tropi Antiphonales," i.e. Tropes of such parts of the Mass and of the Breviary as are chanted. The latter are of slightly later date, are chiefly limited to interpolations of the Responsory after the Lessons, and are almost exclusively insertions into one of the concluding words of such Responsory. Their entire structure resembles so much the structure of the Sequences of the first epoch, upon which they were undoubtedly modelled, that later on they were often used as independent Sequences. Such is the case with the oldest Breviary Trope of the Blessed Virgin, which is built upon the penultimate word, inviolata, of the Responsory of the Assumption: "Gaude Maria virgo . . . et post partum inviolata permansisti." The syllable la of inviolata was the bearer of a long melisma; to this melisma towards the close of the tenth century in France the following text was composed:

1a. Invio-lata integra et casta es, Maria, 1b. Quae es effecta fulgida regis porta. 2a. O mater alma Christi carissima, 2b. Suscipe pia laudum precamina 3a. Nostra ut pura pectora sint et corpora. 3b. Quae nunc flagitant devota corda et ora, 4a. Tu da per precata dulcisona, 4b. Nobis perpetua frui vita, 5. O benigna, quae sola inviolata permansisti.

Of a similar structure are all the Breviary Tropes or "Verbeta", and they are dovetailed, as shown above, more or less ingeniously, between the penultimate and last word of their Responsory.

The "Tropi Graduales" in their turn are divided into two classes, namely into "Tropi ad Ordinarium Missae" or to the unchangeable text of the Mass, i.e. to the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Ite missa est, and into "Tropi ad Proprium Missarum" or to those parts of the text which change according to the respective feast, i.e. to the Introit, Lesson, Gradual, Offertory, and Communion. This latter class frequently differs from the former also in the external structure of its Tropes; and at first it was the most widespread; it might perhaps even claim to be the oldest and most original; but it disappeared at a relatively early date, whereas the "Tropi ad Ordinarium Missae" still kept their place in liturgy for a considerable time.

History and significance

The origin of the Tropes, that is to say of the Gradual Tropes (since the Antiphonal Tropes are evidently of a later date), must almost coincide with that of the Proses or Sequences which are most closely related to them; this would mean that their history begins somewhere in the eighth century. Whether the Trope or the Sequence was the older form is all the more difficult to decide, since the Sequence itself is to a certain degree a kind of Trope. The St. Martial Troper, the oldest one known, of the middle of the tenth century (Cod. Parisin., 1240), abounds in Tropes to the Introit, Gradual, Offertory, and Communion; in other words it has a great many "Tropi ad Proprium Missarum". In addition it contains thirteen Gloria Tropes, but only two of the Sanctus, and not one of the Kyrie. Comparatively poor in Tropes are the St. Gall Tropers, and this fact alone makes it extremely doubtful whether Tutilo of St. Gall was the inventor of the Tropes. It appears that the Trope, like the Sequence, originated in France, where from the tenth century onward it enjoyed great popularity and was most eagerly cultivated. From there it soon made its way to England and to Northern Italy, later to Central and Southern Italy, and became widespread in all these countries, less so, however, in Germany. It was known there as early as in the ninth century, since Tutilo of St. Gall can rightly be considered a composer of Tropes. It remains a curious fact that in spite of the great number of Tropes no poet can be named who gained distinction as a composer of Tropes. In the thirteenth century this once important branch of literature began to decline and survived almost exclusively in Kyrie Tropes, particularly in France until the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Regarding the poetical contents, the Tropes, with few exceptions, are of no great value. But this peculiar poetical production is all the more interesting for the student of liturgy, and especially great is its significance in the development of music and poetry. It is worthy of note that, instead of short insertions into the liturgical text, as time went on several verses, entire stanzas, even a number of stanzas, were fitted in. The non-essential part developed into the main work; the liturgical text withdrew entirely into the background, and was scarcely even considered as the starting-point. In this manner the Tropes grew to be independent cantions, motets, or religious folk-songs. Also the dramatic character, which was quite peculiar to many Introit Tropes at Christmas and Easter, developed more and more luxuriantly until it reached its highest perfection in larger dramatic scenes, mystery plays, and plays of a purely religious character. Tropes finally left the liturgical and religious ground altogether, and wandered away from the spiritual to the profane field of songs of love, gambling, and drinking. And for that reason many specimens of religious as well as secular poetry of later date can be fully understood only when they are traced back to their source, the Tropes. The importance from a musical standpoint of both the Tropes and the Sequences has been most suitably characterized by Rev. Walter Howard Frere in his introduction to "The Winchester Troper" where he says: "For the musician the whole story is full of interest, for the Tropers practically represent the sum total of musical advance between the ninth and the twelfth century. . . . All new developments in musical composition, failing to gain admission into the privileged circle of the recognised Gregorian service-books, were thrown together so as to form an independent musical collection supplementary to the official books; and that is exactly what a Troper is" (op. cit., p. vi).


FRERE, The Winchester Troper (London, 1894); WOLF, Ueber die Lais (Heidelberg, 1841); GAUTIER, Les Tropes (Paris, 1886); REINERS, Tropen-Gesange u. ihre Melodien (Luxemburg, 1887); BLUME AND BANNISTER, Tropi Graduales ad ordinarium Missae in Analecta hymnica, XLVII (Leipzig, 1905); BLUME, Tropi Graduales ad Proprium Missarum in Anal. Hymn., XLIX (Leipzig, 1906).

About this page

APA citation. Blume, C. (1912). Trope. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Blume, Clemens. "Trope." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Herman F. Holbrook. Ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus per Iesum Christum.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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