A Tale of Two Cantors

I’ve been attending Sunday Mass at St. Mary Major lately. The all-men choir is just tremendous and the preaching by the canons is top-notch. The Dominican confessors wait for penitents in the wooden confessionals that line the walls–and the penitents come. At Communion time the Franciscans emerge to attend to the distribution of the Blessed Sacrament.

For most of the Mass, propers are used, and of course the ordinary is chanted, alternatum with polyphony. It’s like a Colloquium every week. But they sing the Responsorial Psalm, at least sometimes.Yesterday for the first time I realized that the Responsorial Psalm was sung by two cantors, and I didn’t realize it at the very beginning. They were so well-blended, and moved together so perfectly, that if it weren’t for two different timbres emerging from time to time, I would have thought it was a single voice.

I’ve seen the use of multiple cantors for Psalms before, at Religious houses, and I quite like it. It’s not like the ubiquitous soloist that we have seen so often. Instead, 2, 4, or 6 cantors–increasing in progressive solemnity according to the importance of the feast–chant the Psalm in unison.

7 Replies to “A Tale of Two Cantors”

  1. Some of Paul Ford's material in BFW provides for two or more psalmists. I've used multiple psalmists from time to time. It's a challenge because I think the psalm is optimally led from the ambo, and most ambos aren't built for more than one person.

    Occasionally one of my music directors will have a singer add harmony from the music area while the main psalmist is singing from the ambo.


  2. The use of two or more singers is to mitigate against pride in the singers and also to show that the liturgy is not the work of soloists (individuals). The rules of most monastic houses advise the use of at least two singers to intone the chant for the above reasons.

    John D. Horton

  3. Todd, a good point regarding the ambo. I don't like the practice in St Peter's where the antiphons are sung in chant but the psalm verses are polyphonic. I have sung Vespers where the antiphons were in Latin but the psalm verses were in English but sung to the Gregorian psalm tones, and it works. Non-monastic communities cannot be expected to be familiar with the entire Psalter. Similarly, the Office hymns work well in translation, since even in Latin the words have to fit the tune, rather than vice-versa, and the Latin of the hymns is not that easy, even if one is reasonably familiar with the language.

    I do have a question. I have heard that the roles of psalmist and cantor are distinct. Can you shed any light on this? There's no mention of it in the GR. Does it hark back to a more ancient practice?

  4. From what location do the cantors chant the psalm at St. Mary Major? Are they miked?

    One of the problems I have at my parish is that the cantor is miked, which further shades their role toward that of soloist.

  5. They seem to be in choir stalls behind the altar. I haven't seen them; they may be miked. They certainly can be heard. Stunningly beautiful voices. There is another kind of cantor in front of the congregation who can be seen as well. He cues in the people at the appropriate times, for example, on the antiphonal Gloria and Creed.

    This makes it possible for unusual constructions, such as antiphony, to happen in a comprehensible way.

    Notre Dame in Paris divides the duties in this way as well, if I remember correctly. There are singers who chant whatever needs to be chanted, and a different kind of cantor who leads the congregation.

  6. The tradition provides for a variety of cantors, depending on the degree of festivity. For the singing of the verses of the Gradual and Alleluia, as well as of the verses of the introit, ferial days have one, normal Sundays two, and feast days, four. In my experience, this is an effective subliminal reinforcement of solemnity.

  7. I know that "Sing the the Lord" prints that the responsorial psalm is sung by the psalmist or "cantor of the psalm." This is usually the cantor, but does not have to be! This is a particular sticking point with me, as a non-musician music director gave bad information regarding this to a colleague of mine. His reply was that the "leader of song" sings the psalm. I referred her to STtL… Hope this helps!

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