The Polyphonic Gradual in the Ordinary Form

Maybe I’m a bit slow, or maybe the details of liturgical music are really complicated, but here is the truth: it took me years to figure out the relationship between the “Responsorial Psalm” that I know from the ordinary form of the Roman Rite, and the “Gradual” from the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite. This is complicated by the oddities of language. There is no “Responsorial Psalm” in the old form so it becomes difficult to trace its lineage. It occurs where there Gradual (which is also a Psalm between the readings) once occurred. The term Gradual is complicated by the fact that the book that contains all the sung propers of the Roman Rite is also called the Gradual or Graduale Romanum.

The structure of the two Psalm forms is completely different. The Gradual is for reflection. Time stands still. There are long elaborations on single vowels. It is a time for prayer. The Responsorial Psalm, in contrast, has typically asked the congregation to engage in a sing along with the cantor, usually consisting of an instantly repeatable antiphon, something closer to what we might experience in the Divine Office. But, as everyone knows, in our culture and times, the Responsorial Psalm has become the most musically unfortunate event at Mass. There are ways around it, such as using the Chabanel Psalm, but generally the Psalm at Mass has not fared well under the new form.

All of this is clear to me now but it took a long time to sort it all out. Which reminds me: we still have no easy reference book that explains the relationship between music and the ordinary form of the Roman Rite. Don’t you find it incredible that after 40-plus years, no such book exists? There are several reasons: confusions, complications, and too many open-ended options. As a result, most musicians are deeply confused and end up just relying on the missalettes for guidance.

In any case, let’s take this apparatus one step further. The Gradual can be sung in the ordinary form but rarely is. Further: it need not be sung in chant only. There is a long history of polyphonic Graduals. It is extremely rare to hear these masterpieces in any form of the Roman Rite. The Colloquium actually featured one by William Byrd. And here it is, followed by the Alleuia. It is absolutely magnificent. It so happens that this occurred in the extraordinary form but there is no reason why this could not have been sung in the ordinary form. There is a substantial distance between this and, e.g. Respond and Acclaim.

11 Replies to “The Polyphonic Gradual in the Ordinary Form”

  1. "The Gradual is for reflection. Time stands still."


    My attempt to sing the Bruckner Locus Iste at a "re-dedication" a few years ago elicited the opinion that not allowing the people in the pews to sing the responsorial psalm was "like a slap in the face."
    I was allowed to program it as a "post-communion" which I do not think is the best moment for choir singing.
    Ah well…

    (Save the Liturgy, Save the World)

  2. Great post. A quibble: I'm no liturgist, but I'm not so sure about the assertion that the Gradual "need not be sung in chant only" in the Ordinary form. The GIRM refers to the Gradual between the readings "from the Graduale Romanum" ("Loco psalmi in lectionario assignati cani potest etiam vel responsorium gra-
    duale e Graduali romano"). It would be difficult to construe this as a reference to the text of the Graduale only–arguably, only the integral musical setting in that book is permitted.

  3. Robert,

    I think it's a hermeneutic of continuity thing. That is, it was traditionally understood that polyphonic settings of the Graduale Proper texts could be substituted for chant, as resources allowed; so we might reasonably interpret the modern GIRM in the same way.

  4. Following a dedication of a church in which every psalm specified had been sung, most with Antiphons set to music that would be singable by the people and fully printed, music and text in the book for the Mass, all of the music and texts reviewed and approved by the bishop, it is reported that the same bishop when asked by the pastor what he thought of the music said, "Too much Latin, not enough music the people knew to sing."

    So what's correct? Following the order of the dedication specified by the church or dumbing it down to praise songs and choruses?

    I'd suggest that the GIRM is saying "all things being equal, gregorian chants from the GR deserve pride of place." Where, oh where, have it heard that phrase before?

  5. Robert raises an interesting point, an intriguing point about language in the GIRM – and hardly the only one. The English version is so mixed up that it is fairly obvious that the translator was unaware of the differences between the Missal proper and the Graduale proper. Then there is the famed word mix up over the Sanctus, which, if read literally, would abolish the polyphonic Sanctus, which Paul VI himself said would be impossible and which John Paul II and B16 have both used consistently. Let's just admit that there are major major problems in the musical integration with the rubrics in the ordinary form. I do not believe for one instant that anyone at V2 or even among those who put the final stamp on the rite of 1969/70 intended to suppress the thousands of polyphonic Psalm compositions intended to be sung at the Graduale. When we encounter these strange ambiguities of language that, if taken literally would suggest outrageous things, we should probably fall back on a sense of the faith to make sense of them, remembering too that the GIRM is not so much a book of absolute rules that apply in a normative sense as much as a general instruction used to describe the expected working out of some details within the ritual structure.

  6. It would be interesting for someone to pull together a "brief history of the responsorial psalm" for this blog. Was it developed in progressive pre-concilar circles? If so, how widely spread did it become before the promulgation of the new missal in '69/'70? Did the responsorial develop differently in different vernacular languages? Do we have documented cases of the old "responsorium graduale" hanging on for a while in certain sees?

    Actually, this would probably be a good topic for a doctoral thesis rather than a blog post.

  7. "brief history of the responsorial psalm"

    I cannot adequately respond to this at the moment, but I think that the following paragraph from Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Constitution on the promulgation of the 1970 Missal is very illuminating:

    "The text of the Graduale Romanum has not been changed as far as the music is concerned. In the interest of their being more readily understood, however, the responsorial psalm (which St. Augustine and St. Leo the Great often mention) as well as the entrance and communion antiphons have been revised for use in Masses that are not sung."

    According to what he says, the responsorial psalm and the two missal antiphons were only intended for "read" masses, i.e. masses with no singing. The latter is made (somewhat) clear in the GIRM, the former is a contradiction with the GIRM. I can only chalk this up to the innovation of the Consilium, which created the books and the accompanying general instruction.

    It truly is mind boggling, and actually infuriating.

  8. I have no wish to share in the disparaging of the responsorial psalm. In fact I cannot see what people find objectionable about it. The Responsorial Psalm is the one part of the Proper in the current vernacular Missal which is both scriptural and stands a reasonable chance of being sung at Sunday masses, the antiphons at the Entry, Offertory and Communion generally being replaced by hymns or "songs" of varying and often questionable relevance. One might reasonably question the quality of some of the settings as with those of some of the Mass Ordinaries provided in recent years and agree that there is room for improvement but I, for one, cannot fault the texts.These are the Psalms, after all, and it seems very fitting that everyone may be helped to engage with them.

  9. Well, it is possible to see the merit, even superior merit, of the Gradual without disparaging the Responsorial Psalm as a text or a method of singing Psalms. However, as you note, the manner in which it has come to be sung in the conventional parish environment is often deeply regrettable, even perfectly silly.

  10. For about a year I've been downloading material from the Chabanel Psalms site, choosing either Arlene Oost-Zinner's or Aristotle Esguerra's UNACCOMPANIED setting of the Responsorial Psalm.

    At first, singing and leading these without accompaniment seemed a little odd. But very quickly, I took a strong liking to this approach: I realized that what I was singing were SUNG PSALMS, and by contrast, the old "R&A" settings seemed like little more than jingles or musical interludes between the readings.

  11. "I, for one, cannot fault the texts. These are the Psalms, after all…"

    True enough; also true of the old Gradual verse. No one is setting Psalms against Psalms.

    Most of the faithful, including clergy, are not aware that the Responsorial is a 1969 innovation–rhetorical allusions to Ss. Augustine and Gregory the Great aside, the Responsorial as we know it is a novelty. The Consilium that devised it and that then selected texts and antiphons for it did so in a dramatic rupture with centuries of Roman liturgical tradition. That's not an "objection" per se–but it is a fact that can raise questions for people of good will.

    In contrast, the meditative, melismatic Gradual verse was the product of centuries of organic development, literally older than anyone can remember. If the Gradual was a part of our worship for so many centuries, then might we do well to explore it and even try to recover its riches?

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