Form of responsorial prayer in which the leader makes varying invocations, which are answered with a consistent refrain:
   Holy Mary, Mother of God . . . Pray for us.
   Saint Michael . . . Pray for us.
   Saints Peter and Paul . . . Pray for us.
   The simple, short, and extremely repetitious responses and the variable list of invocations make litanies especially appropriate for processions. The total length is regulated by the time taken for the procession to complete its route.
   The litanic form appears in the Old Testament (e.g., the song of the three children, Daniel 3: 57–88). The Jewish selihot, for Yom Kippur and other fast days, and hosha’not for the Feast of Tabernacles, are litanies.
   The fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions notes a litany with the response Kyrie eleison at the Eucharist, and Egeria reports a similar form for vespers. In the Ambrosian rite, a litany replaced the Gloria during Lent. In fifth-century Gaul (France), litanies were sung in petition of local needs, a practice that spread to England by the seventh century and Rome by the eighth.
   In the Roman rite, the Kyrie was probably once a litany that was shortened into the nine-fold form by Pope St. Gregory the Great, and the Agnus Dei was routinely extended by troping into a litany to cover the ritual of fraction. Litanies of saints (as above) occur in the Byzantine rites by the sixth century; the earliest notated version in theWest is 11th century. Litanies specific to individual saints, such as the Litany of Loreto, appear late in the 12th century.
   An anthology of polyphonic litanies, Thesaurus Litaniae, was published in Munich in 1596 and contains works of Giovanni da Palestrina, Orlandus Lassus, and Tomás Luis de Victoria as well as German composers. Polyphonic litanies could be sung in alternatim, with the cantor answered by the choir, often in falsobordone. Settings for cori spezzati also take advantage of the responsorial form. The 17th century saw this tradition peak, with 600 polyphonic litanies published, the Litany of Loreto being the most frequent text. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart set it twice (1771, 1774) along with two others (1772, 1776).

Historical dictionary of sacred music. . 2006.

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