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.