Catholic liturgical music is inside out: an opportunity

Something odd happened after the Council. The Catholic world became accustomed to a very old form of liturgical song: the antiphon and its Psalm. This came in the form of the Responsorial Psalm between the readings at Mass, in the place of the gradual chant.

The Responsorial Psalm is customarily sung antiphonally. A cantor, or occasionally a schola, intones an antiphon. This is repeated by the congregation. The cantor or choir then sings verses of a Psalm, punctuated again and again by the antiphon.

This is exactly the form of an introit or a Communio.

The Communion antiphons, even in Latin, are almost always accessible to a congregation. Granted, this was not their original intention, but singing them is certainly possible. This is even more the case with the many vernacular proper antiphons, or even “Englished” chants using authentic melodies. Singing anything repeatedly helps us to interiorize its meaning, and the sacred texts of the antiphons are well worth interiorizing.

The Responsorial Psalm is remarkably popular with congregations. No one, in my experience, ever complains about it. This is not normal. Music is a sensitive subject for most people, and liturgical music particularly so. People complain about most liturgical music. And yet no one complains about the Responsorial Psalm.

I’ve mentioned here before that one of the first steps a pastor might prudently take to implement sacred music in his parish is to sing a Responsorial Psalm during the Communion procession–while people are going to Communion. This is perfectly allowable according to #87 of the GIRM:

“In the Dioceses of the United States of America, there are four options for singing at Communion: (1) the antiphon from the Missal or the antiphon with its Psalm from the Graduale Romanum, as set to music there or in another musical setting; (2) the antiphon with Psalm from the Graduale Simplex of the liturgical time; (3) a chant from another collection of Psalms and antiphons, approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop, including Psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) some other suitable liturgical chant (cf. no. 86) approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop. This is sung either by the choir alone or by the choir or a cantor with the people.”

One of the many benefits of singing a Psalm in this way is its acceptability. There is still time to sing a congregational hymn after Communion (GIRM #88) if desired, so if a hymn is customary during the procession, it won’t be long missed. People like singing Responsorial Psalms. It’s easier to sing an antiphon than a strophic hymn during a procession, because books are not needed.

In my experience, there is little to no resistance when introducing an antiphonal Psalm at Communion.

Having solved that difficulty, is there a way to solve its converse as well?

A much more difficult change, but one which I would personally welcome very much, would be the return of the Gregorian Graduals, Alleluias, and Tracts. Joining in with an antiphonal Psalm has its place in the Mass, at Communion and possibly the Introit and even the Offertory. On the other hand, it seems to me that the “better part” of a congregation’s attitude during and between the readings is to settle ourselves in for a good, long listen.

The Lord told His disciples that the “good soil” in the parable of the sower is someone who hears the word and understands it. An important aspect of good soil is its preparation. In most parishes, barely has the Mass begun before we hear the Gospel. Is it enough time to open our hearts to hear it?

The Gradual, Tract, and Alleluia chants give us a luxury of time and reflection that is almost impossible to find in our world. Honestly, it is hard to find in the Church, even when proper antiphons are used, because for reasons of time and the limitations of expertise and rehearsal constrain and simplify the verses to Psalm tones or similar musical abbreviations.

I think it is worth running a cost-benefit analysis here. Yes, it takes quite a long time to sing the proper chants between the readings. On the other hand, if they enhance the sacred attention of the congregation to the Sunday readings, is it possibly worth it?


The Pinions of the Most High and the “He” of the Psalms

In the accounts of the temptation of Jesus in both Matthew and Luke’s gospels, Satan quotes Psalm 91 to convince Jesus to throw Himself down. It’s okay. Don’t worry. God has promised that his angels will bear you up lest you dash your foot against a stone.

A lot of the Bible, taken out of context, can give a false sense of comfort. Don’t be afraid. Everything will be all right. And down the gentle anodyne slippery slope we go.

The Church reads the Scriptures as a unified whole, and in the context of the hard-won doctrine of Tradition. The verses quoted by Satan, in contrast, are not taken in context even with their Psalm as a whole. Rightly read, the promises of Psalm 91 are conditional: He who dwells in the shelter of the most High and abides in the shade of the Almighty–to him be the promises.

I believe this is why the entire set of propers for the First Sunday of Lent is taken, almost ironically, from Psalm 91. The Church takes the tempter’s words, removes their sting, and turns them against him in an attitude of faith. Yes, it is the one who dwells in the shelter of the Most High and abides in the shade of the Almighty who will not strike his foot against a stone.

Who is this one? The new Adam, Who does not believe the tempter’s suave words. Who does not tempt God. Who is God Who rebukes the tempter, with the Law–He Who is the Word and the Law. Who does not know sin and has power to take sin away. Who does not strike a stone but strikes the head of the serpent with His heel. Who dwells ever in the bosom of the Father.


Church Music Association of America on EWTN

In a two-part series on EWTN’s Church Universal program, CMAA officers Professor William Mahrt, Fr. Robert Pasley and Dr. Horst Buchholz discuss the work of the Church Music Association of America.

The first part may be viewed online or on television at 6:30 pm Eastern Time tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, and part 2 will be presented this coming Sunday at 5 pm ET, with repeat broadcasts on Tuesday morning and Wednesday evening.

Among its many contributions to music in the Liturgy, the CMAA has contributed greatly to a resurgence in the use of the proper texts of the Mass, compiling and making public vast resources so that the propers may be used in every context.

Square Notes: The Sacred Music Podcast

Peter Carter and I have just launched a new podcast entitled “Square Notes: The Sacred Music Podcast.”

Our first episode is an interview with His Excellency, Archbishop Alexander K. Sample of Portland, Oregon. We recorded the episode before he released his new pastoral letter in Portland, but we hope you’ll find the episode especially enlightening now that the new document has been released.

Here’s a bit about the show from our website:

You’ve got questions about sacred music?

Here’s your chance to learn what the Church teaches and envisions for music in the sacred liturgy.

Welcome to Square Notes: The Sacred Music Podcast with your hosts Peter Carter and Dr. Jennifer Donelson. We address topics of interest both to priests and liturgical musicians, as well as a general audience of Catholics interested in learning more about the Catholic Church’s teachings and treasury of sacred music. Our topics range from discussion of Church documents on sacred music, to the music of certain composers or eras, Gregorian chant, the role of music in Catholic education, and techniques for directing a better choir rehearsal. We’ll interview bishops, priests, music directors, composers, teachers, philosophers, and theologians. We’ll talk to people who found a home in the Catholic Church because they heard the call of Christ in the Church’s sacred music. We’ll ask questions about how really great music programs are doing their work. We’ll introduce you to Catholics who love their faith and, through sacred music, offer all their efforts for his glory and the sanctification of all who hear them.

We aim for our podcast to be thoughtful, encouraging, and informative. We hope, too, that it will inspire and motivate you to work for the renewal of authentic beauty in sacred music—whether you’re a working church musician or an average Catholic in the pews wondering what’s going on. With the prayers of our patronesses, Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom and Saint Elisabeth of the Trinity, we hope to help draw souls to Christ through the beauty of the Church’s sacred music.

The podcast is distributed via iTunesYouTubeSoundCloud, and Stitcher.

Here’s a look at our upcoming episodes, which will be released weekly on Sunday/Monday:

Episode 1– An Archbishop’s Reflections on Sacred Music – with Archbishop Alexander K. Sample
Episode 2 – Beauty and Catholic Culture: a Story of Conversion – with Vida and Josh Hernandez
Episode 3 – The Role of Sacred Music in Catholic Education – with Charles Cole
Episode 4 – Seven Common Misconceptions about Sacred Music – with Peter and Jenny
Episode 5 – Introduction to Gregorian Chant – with Dr. William Mahrt
Episode 6 – Spirituality of Gregorian Chant – with Fr. Cassian Folsom, OSB
Episode 7 – Historical Techniques for Teaching Music to Children – with Charlie Weaver
Episode 8 – The Role of Sacred Art in Evangelization and Church Patronage of Art – with Dr. Elizabeth Lev

If you enjoy the podcast, please consider leaving us a rating on iTunes, or subscribe on any of our platforms. This helps others find out about the podcast.