Friday, April 29, 2011

A Primer on the Gradual

Lots of people have questions about sacred music that they are afraid to ask. A small fraction of these questions arrive in my in box, and I’m always happy about this. Usually they involve terminology. It’s always the case that people involved in a sector of life develop their own vocabulary. I can recall recently talking to a person in the candy-packaging industry and it was dazzling how many specialized terms he could throw out there in the course of a few minutes.

And so it is in sacred music. The trouble is that this sector has been small and specialized for half a century, whereas the vocabulary really ought to be a common feature of Catholic life. I can understand this from an individual point of view. It wasn’t too long ago that the specialized language of Catholic music and liturgy was completely new to me, and of course I still have vast amounts to learn.

I can recall, for example, being completely confused by the term Graduale. What is it and why am I having such a hard time figuring it out? Sure enough, I received an email today asking all the same questions I once had. So let me try to straighten this out. And, please, I welcome any correction to this entry.

The term Graduale is Latin. In English it is Gradual. A major source of confusion is that it is used in two senses. One use refers to the music book of the Roman Rite, the Roman Gradual or Graduale Romanum. Another use refers to a special kind of chant after which the book itself is named.

So this usage problem is already confusing, since we are used to one word meaning one thing. Hence, “sing the Graduale from the Graduale” is a sentence that is likely to introduce no end to confusion. But this is the way it is: the Graduale is one of the chants in the Graduale. And the reason for the naming of the book in this way is that the Graduale is the oldest and most elaborate and most beautiful of all the Gregorian chants. It is the most exalted chant in the book.

The Graduale is the chant between the readings. The text is the Psalms. It is the primary text for the Psalms. These chants have been with us since the earliest centuries. It was being formed and standardized in the period in which the canon of the Bible itself was being codified.

The original of the term comes from its English meaning of steps, particularly the steps leading to the altar. This is the place from which the Graduale was sung. Its liturgical function, scholars tell us, was not about processing from here to there. It was not to accompany an action as such. Its function was purely to provide a time of reflection between the readings. It is long. It has a verse that can require a great deal of singing skill. It is the most musically engaging and elaborate of all the chants assigned to the schola. Its main magnificence comes from its music, which itself forms the infrastructure of all chant (and, in turn, the whole corpus of musical development of Western civilization ever since).

Now we come to a trickier problem, namely, where is the Graduale today? In the ordinary form (the form experienced by probably 95% plus of Catholics today), there is nothing called the Graduale in the Missal or the Missalettes or any choir book. The Graduale chant survives only in the book the Graduale Romanum. The all-but universal practice is to replace the Graduale with what is called the Responsorial Psalm.

This replacement occurred at the promulgation of the new Mass in 1969/70. The Responsorial Psalm is not required. The General Instruction permits the singing of the Graduale too - and from the point of view of tradition and the “hermeneutic of continuity,” such a practice would be clearly superior. It is hardly ever done however.

When the Responsorial Psalm was introduced, it was as a text-only change. Whereas the Graduale had this long and amazing musical history, the Responsorial Psalm was just a sentence and it was left to composers and publishers to set it to music.

The result is that it might be the most musically unstable portion of Mass. (As with the case of many changes in this period, one led again led to ask: what were they thinking?) The prevailing belief is that the people have to be able to instantly sing it back (all in the name of participation) which led composers and publishers to shove the text into metrical musical settings that feature a popular feel to them.

Even if it was no one’s particular intention, the results are astounding to consider. What was once the most musically rooted and glorious portion of Mass, the very Psalms of David that were the basis of the song of all early Christians, became the least musically impressive, and often the most embarrassing, part of Mass.

To be sure, it is not the case that the Graduale was sung in its proper form at every Mass before 1969. At Low Masses, it was spoken. At High Masses, it was usually sung to a Psalm tone in a hurried way, which actually defeats the point of the form and function of the chant. But this less-ideal approach became codified with the syllabic and purely didactic approach of the Responsorial Psalm. The idea of providing a long moment of transcendent sound for prayerful reflection is gone. The Psalm has become just another noisy thing that happens somewhere between coming and going.

To be sure, it does not have to be way this. Chabanel Psalms opened up its doors three years ago and changed many aspects of the conventional practice. They are beautiful and attempt, insofar as it is possible, to come closer toward the idea of the older and more traditional model. In my own parish, we sing the Responsorial Psalm with settings by Arlene Oost-Zinner. The CMAA hopes to put these out as a single volume with all three years so that choirs can have these in the choir room or loft.

This approach is not an end in itself. We really need to push forward toward an environment that is more hospitable toward a real singing of the authentic Graduale chant. From the point of view of the people at Mass, this would be a much-welcome relief, a time when they are not being hectored to sing or listening to some instruction or having prayers interrupted by a mandate to sing a seven-second ditty. Instead, they could have a few minutes of peace, actual time for deep prayer. Imagine that!

Vatican liturgical events have take some steps toward re-introducing the Graduale, and this is a much-welcome change. As we look to the future, I don’t think there is any doubt where we are headed. The Graduale isn’t going anywhere. Neither, for that matter is the book the Graduale Romanum. The Psalms of David sung in their most masterful form will return in all their glory, maybe not in my lifetime but at some point. Music of this type transcends the preferences and experiments of a single generation.


Adam Bartlett said...

"In the ordinary form...there is nothing called the Graduale in the Missal or the Missalettes or any choir book."

I don't want to muddy the waters any more than they already are–thank you for the very good post Jeffrey–but I offer an insight I gained just a short time ago:

I was looking at the General Instruction of the Lectionary... yes such a thing does exist, though many people don't know about it. In this introduction to the Ordo Lectionarium Missae there is one curious sentence that states (pulling from memory) in on case "the Responsorial Psalm, or Gradual...".

This is the only document that I have ever seen that uses the two terms interchangably. No clear distinction is made between the text of the Lectionary from the Gradual in this instance. This one line is the clearest example of continuity between the two forms that I have seen, while all else seems to drive a wedge between them.

The instruction of the GIRM itself is enough to ostracize the Gregorian Gradual: "the responsorial psalm is sung by all", something that is not possible with the Gregorian Gradual.

The line from the General Instruction of the Lectionary is interesting, though, because it suggests that the GR and RP really should be seen as one in the same.

I think of the Gradual for Easter day, Haec dies quam fecit..., which is the exact same text as is found in the Lectionary for the Responsorial Psalm: "This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad." I have been meaning to, and someday soon will, do a comparative study of the two sets of texts to see where the crossover is, but my practical experience suggests that often there is very little.

In any case, the example of the Easter "Gradual" is the clearest display of continuity between the two forms, only with the addition of more psalm verses in the RP. The lack of a musical setting for the Lectionary text, as you say, suggests new composition, and the rubric that all should sing it suggest a simple setting.

It would be wonderful if we at least had a textual unity between the texts of the Lectionary and the Graduale. Better still would be to allow the congregation to actively participate in actively praying the melismatic Gradual, sung in its full glory.

Adam Bartlett said..., that was a long comment...

Anonymous said...

Now, the real question:

You say "sing the Graduale from the Graduale"

Can that step where it is sung from also be called the gradual(e)? Could you even say this to confuse people more?

"I sing the Graduale in the Graduale from the Graduale."

Is that correct?

Mark M. said...

Wonderful as always. And, as always, some questions:

(1) You mentioned that scholars have said that the function of the Gradual is to provide a moment of reflection between the readings. I'm curious if you could point us to a particular resource where we could read more about that. I know Dr. Mahrt has mentioned this… I've been looking, but I can't seem to find an article by him on the subject in the Sacred Music archives.

(2) In an Ordinary Form Mass, would you recommend that the Gradual be sung from the steps? Or could it effectively be sung from the choir loft?

Thanks as always.

Steven van Roode said...

Here's the relevant line from the Introduction to the Ordo Lectionum Missae (no. 19): "Psalmus responsorius, qui et graduale vocatur, ..."

This is interesting, Adam. Also, look how the GIRM does have a strong preference for the psalm from the Lectionary (no. 61): "Psalmus responsorius [...] e lectionario de more sumatur." (The responsorial Psalm [...] should, as a rule, be taken from
the Lectionary.)

But the gradual isn't excluded either: "Loco psalmi in lectionario assignati cani potest etiam vel responsorium graduale e Graduali romano, vel psalmus responsorius aut alleluiaticus e Graduali simplici, sicut in his libris describuntur." (In place of the
Psalm assigned in the Lectionary for Mass, the gradual response from the Roman Gradual, or the responsorial psalm or alleluia psalm from the Simple Gradual may be sung.) Here it's called the "responsorium graduale"!

The choice between the texts from the Lectionary, Roman Gradual and Simple Gradual accords with the two ways the responsorial psalm can be sung: responsorially or directly (Introduction to OLM, no. 20)

The musical settings of the responsorial psalms from the Lectionary are abundant. Where are the musical settings of the English Graduals?

To Mark:
(1) See the GIRM (no. 61): "After the first reading comes the responsorial Psalm, which is an integral part of the Liturgy of the Word and holds great liturgical and pastoral importance, because it fosters meditation on the word of God."

Ian Allan said...

I couldn't agree more, but you can't get the Gradual back without getting the Old Mass back.

The explanation might usefully be supplemented with a note on the form of the word: ‹graduale›, neuter adjective because ‹responsorium› is understood: ‹responsorium graduale› 'the responsory sung from the steps'.

Anonymous said...

... Just saw in the Graduale Romanum that during Easter time, even up to Pentecost, the Gradual is replaced by an Alleluia between the two first readings. In other words: two Alleluia during that period! Hey!
Jacques P.

Musings said...

Picking up the historical thread, early monastics, especially hermits, could not avail themselves to daily Mass, BUT they did have the Psalms (which would become the Office) - which all point to Jesus or Jesus speaks to us. They were immersed in the Word in many aspects and levels. They lived on the Psalms as their daily bread and memorized them. We, however, memorize little, and, although, not to relegate daily Mass to second place, attendance at daily Mass does not have the same effect of immersing one in scripture. Mass (especially the OF) can be quite busy and works against meditation and contemplation, our true end. Gregorian Chant allows the mind to anchor the text into the soul which provides sustenance for the rest of the day. Mass combined with the Office is a highly choreographed dance to engage us with the WORD.

All this being said, restoration of the Gradual between readings provides another physical vehicle for the soul to commune with God and reflect upon Him rather than trying to figure out the "seven second ditty" de jour.

Musings said...

BTW - Thanks for a great explanation - and I, too, look forward to finding the reference by Dr. Mahrt.

Joseph said...

I hadn't realized the Gradual was still an option in the OF. How does that work with the revised calendar? There's a Responsorial Psalm assigned to each Sunday in the 3-year A/B/C cycle of readings in the OF, is there also a 3-year cycle of Graduals? Or do you just pick one that's similar to the assigned RP?

Jeffrey A. Tucker said...

Thanks so much for all the great comments.

Joseph, the Graduale is in the 1974 Graduale :)

Actually you can find it in the Gregorian Missal too.

bob cratchit said...

When i first discovered your article, I thought "is the Graduale returning to Mass!"? (You know, with the new missal) I attended the Latin mass for a few years and it always preceded the Gospel. I assumed thats what it was refering to, a slow pause before the gospe-l to prepare us . One problem with restoring the Graduale properly would be having the necessary choir to support it. Not something that a lot of parishes can afford anymore it seams.

Jeffrey A. Tucker said...

Bob, musicians need challenges. All musicians.

MarkThompson said...

@Anonymous 9:55 PM:
"Can that step where it is sung from also be called the gradual(e)? Could you even say this to confuse people more?"

No, the Latin word for a step is "gradus." That's indeed where the Gradual gets its name, but the step itself would never be called a Gradual.

Simon said...

Hasn't the substitution of the gradual for the responsorial psalm been expressly provided for throughout the novus ordo's tenure? See GIRM 36 (1975) and GIRM 61 (2003).

Vince Ambrosetti said...

Could you suggest the best source for Latin chant for the most current typical edition of the Mass? It would be extremely helpful if this were in Finale of Sibelius (music files). Thank you.