Responsorial Psalms: remnants of the Propers?
  • I sing with my son in our parish choir. We use the "Respond & Acclaim" (OCP) book of Responsorial Psalms. We just got the new one for the new liturgical year. Every Sunday has a brief polyphonic choral setting of a psalm refrain, with verses for the cantor to sing solo. Also there is a short polyphonic Alleluia for each week. These are my favorite moments of the weekly singing, with gorgeous harmonies and interesting parts that each voice (SATB) practice a few times at weekly rehearsal (actually we have no bass right now).

    Would these pieces, specific to each day, be the remnants of what used to be the Propers?
  • davido
    Posts: 111
    Yes, they are propers. Along with the readings at mass, there are 5 other antiphon texts which are specific, or "proper" to a feast day: Entrance, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory, and Communion.

    The responsorial psalm is customarily sung in place of the Gradual, the historic psalmic chant that followed the 1st reading. It is a characteristic of the new mass (a restoration or invention, depending on one's point of view). The brief OCP Alleluia replaces an alleluia chant, the identifying feature of which was the long series of notes called a "jubilus" or "jubilation," which was sung just on "ah," representing the ecstatic joy of the church in anticipation of the gospel.

    The Entrance and Communion proper chants roughly correspond to the Entrance and Communion antiphon texts found in the current missal. The offertory text was left untranslated from the Latin.
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  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 7,395
    Most of the time, the schedule of responsorial psalms is not based on the same texts as appear in the proper antiphons.

    The propers for the Sundays of the calendar (introit, gradual, alleluia, offertory, communion) are generally the same every year, with just a few exceptions. The responsorial psalms, on the other hand, follow the lectionary cycle, with a three-year rotation of texts for Sundays. With Advent approaching (December 2018), the RP will follow the lectionary schedule for Sundays of "Year C".

    For one example, the First Sunday of Advent has proper antiphons drawn from Psalm 25 and Psalm 84.

    The Responsorial Psalm for that Sunday (in "Year C") will be from Psalm 25; but last year it was from Psalm 80, and next year it will be from Psalm 122.
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  • A careful look at the texts of the Graduals in the GR will reveal that, formally, they consist of a Responsory and a Verse. These are all that remains of what was once a responsorial psalm. In light of this it is evident that the Responsorial Psalm of the OF of the Roman rite is a restoration of a practice that was 'trimmed down' many centuries ago, perhaps pre-mediaeval.

    It would be appropriate, then, when singing the Responsorial Psalm (RP), for the cantor's verses to be actual chant-like melodies that differ from verse to verse. In this way the modern RP would be a truer likeness of the Roman Gradual Responsory (a peculiarly Roman form) of which it is derivative. Too, it is of the nature of responsorial psalmody that when the verses are sung by a choir they are, obviously, to be cast in polyphonic or choral form, preferably not one of the varieties of faburden or psalm tone-based music.

    The same holds true of the Alleluya verse: it should be an actual chant-like melody which compliments the key or mode of its responsory, which is the alleluya (the alleluya [with a jubilus], not the alleluyas).

    The current custom of having the verses of the RP sung to a psalm tone or a psalm tone derivative is misplaced. Psalm tones are by nature choral; they were devised for the choral singing of the psalter by large groups of monks, or a choir; or a congregation - they are not solo chants. The verses of an RP are solos and demand to be delivered in 'solo' melos. Using psalm tones for the verses of a responsorial form is to misunderstand both what a psalm tone is for, and what responsorial psalmody is.

    Further, singing each verse of an RP to its own moderately (at least very moderately) developed melody would go far to recapturing the essentially meditative character of any responsorial chant. The beauty of the Roman Gradual Responsories is in the often ecstatc ejaculation of text by the solo cantor. We have a long way to go before achieving a true 'restoration' of the sublime dynamic of responsorial psalmody in the mass.
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    I have composed (and Father Columba has composed for me) RPs and Alleluya verses with mildly elaborate neumatic chant (I have had talented cantors) which was different for each verse - contrasted with a relatively easy chant-like responsory for the congregation. The effect of this at mass is stunningly beautiful and has always been remarked upon positively. I have even had priests request that I compose such RPs for them for certain occasions, the most recent having been a priest-friend's 40th anniversary last July. I recommend this highly for those who have the resources. Of course what is good for the RP is good also for the Alleluya's verse. The Alleluya and its verse are a responsorial form, the alleluya being the responsory.
  • MarkB
    Posts: 104
    It would be appropriate, then, when singing the Responsorial Psalm (RP), for the cantor's verses to be actual chant-like melodies that differ from verse to verse. In this way the modern RP would be a truer likeness of the Roman Gradual Responsory (a peculiarly Roman form) of which it is derivative.


    Would you please provide some examples of this? To my knowledge, the graduals in the GR are not responsory in format and the psalms sung in responsory format for introit, offertory or communion in the GR have verses sung to tones that differ from the office psalm tones (as in the Versus Psalmorum et Canticorum) but are still tones nevertheless instead of having different melodies for each verse.

    I like the proposal, but I'm confused about the basis for the precedent and don't know where to look to see examples. What comes to mind that fits what you are describing is the hymn Rorate Caeli Desuper, but that's not a psalm.
  • Jackson,

    Would you concede that recovery of the responsory and psalm verses need not have led to the modern form of the Responsorial Psalm, and/or that whatever else it is, the current form of the Responsorial Psalm is a pretender, rather than a legitimate heir to the throne?
  • Chris -

    Your 'pretender rather than heir' hath about it a the air of a clever tag. The problem is the music to which the RP is set typically nowadays - banal pop-inspired at best responsories and verses that have the unimaginative likeness of psalm tones. With music such as I have described above the RP would, indeed, be a fitting heir. As it is now, no one could possibly take it seriously even as a pretender. As it is now it hath about it the air of an imposter, a poseur. People are despising the RP for the cheap clothing it has been given.

    And, a curious thing about current treatments of the RP is that in them the music for the responsory is more elaborate than that for the verses. This is an irony and is just the opposite of what it should be. As it is now we typically have a pop-inspired melody for the responsory and some sort of easy psalm-tone derivative for the verse. The cantor is the one who should have the most elaborate melos, and it should be different for each verse.

    When I play and cantor at St Basil's Chapel, UST, I always 'feed' the people a simple chant-like responsory and improvise mildly neumatic chant for the verses of the RP, all done a capella. The people have been generous in their expressions of approval.
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  • MarkB
    Posts: 104
    MJO, so as an experiment because I really like your idea, I attached something I did for 4th Sunday of Advent C, using the Guimont psalm refrain. People who use Guimont's collection know that the settings range from pretty good to awful. This one has a decent refrain but a very boring psalm tone for the verses.

    I attempted what you suggested: set the verses to a melody that is chant-like as much as I could for it not really being a modal refrain, and each of the verses has a different melody but with some repeated musical phrases for cohesion.

    What do you and others think of this? Is this the sort of thing you have in mind? Never mind that it's not high art... how is it as a first attempt at what you propose?

  • Mark -

    You are onto the right idea. I like your composition. You have a good sense of textual rhythm and melody. (As for the Guimont responsory - ha! if that is a good one I'd hate to see a bad one!) Your verses are, but for one or two spots that I would tweak, very good. Do this every Sunday! Experiment with a greater portion of neumaticism - and don't be afraid of a melisma here and there.
  • a_f_hawkins
    Posts: 1,013
    Can I drag in the witness of the Graduale Simplex. There the format of Introit, Offertory, and Communion is (and noted as) Antiphon and verses. The format of the RP is (and noted as) verses each followed by response. The Alleluia is described as an Antiphon, with verses, and is the only element where it is laid out as Cantor Alleluia, Congregation repeat, cantor verse, Cong. Alleluia, verse, Cong. Alleluia . (Which is of course how the RP is laid out in the Missal.) The Alleluia Psalm, is shaped as a responsory like the RP. And the Tract is just verses.
    It may be, as I think I have seen suggested, that this structure corresponds to some dimly perceived original form.
    It is pretty clear that the musical form has the complexity in the wrong parts, as MJO says. I suspect that this comes from neccessity in an age when reproduction of texts was extremely expensive, and literacy was low. I take the opportunity to repeat my suggestion that we use the music of GS best by having the congregation sing the verses, and the Cantor the Antiphon or Response.
  • mahrt
    Posts: 495
    We need to reflect on the liturgical function of the responsorial psalm. The GIRM says its purpose is meditation. Thus purpose is well fulfilled by the gradual, but, given the drab melodies repeated rote bu the congregation, it is hard to imagine how that is a meditation. There the verses could make a contribution, but traditionally meditational chants were melismatic; I believe a straight syllabic setting of the verse might not serve this purpose very well; I would propose that the cantor singing the verse should do something melismatic, though with several verses prescribed, it would have to be discreet. It is useful to note that the documents do not generally distinguish between gradual and responsorial psalm, treating them as if they were one genre.
  • Mark -

    If I knew how, I would post some of my examples as you have done above. As Dr Mahrt has said, the RP really comes to life when the verses are composed with a degree (less or more) of neumaticism, even a degree of melismaticism, which would foster and be a vehicle for meditation. These verses can be written out, or improvised by those who are competent cantors.

    Too, it is pertinent to observe that the Rorate caeli which you reference is, though it is not a psalm, a responsorial form, as is, also, the Lenten prose, Attende Domini. Both of these would be good examples, even though all their verses share basically the same melody - which ought not be the case in the psalm responsory at mass.
  • davido
    Posts: 111
    MJO could you take a picture of them with a smartphone? I would love to see one
  • Sorry, Davido, I would love to, but I don't have a smart phone.
    I'm beginning to think that I need to get one (but [ha!] they are so XXIst century).
    Perhaps I could use a friend's smart phone. How, then, would I post it here?
  • a_f_hawkins
    Posts: 1,013
    Not only do we have three possibilities, in the OF, for the chant after the third first reading, but they are all of different characters. The Missal, or rather the Lectionary, presents an antiphon and verses of a psalm:
    In responsorial singing, which, as far as possible, is to be given preference, the psalmist or cantor of the psalm sings the psalm verse and the whole congregation joins in by singing the response,
    a misleading description, since it is clearly what LOTH would call an antiphon not a response.
    GR gives us an 'antiphon' and usually one verse, however the whole thing is described as a response, and it says "The first part of the response (i.e. the 'antiphon') may be repeated as far as the verse ". The whole thing contains complex melismata, and is quite beyond a normal congregation.
    GS gives verses of a psalm, each followed by a response. There is no suggestion, either in the presentation or AFAIK in any instructions, that the congregation should hear the response before launching into it. The only feasible way of achieving what is written, IMO, is for the congregation to sing each verse (which is a simple psalm tone) and the cantor to add the response. Otherwise we have to treat the response more as an antiphon in the way described for the Lectionary.
    Dr Mahrt is of course correct to describe GR as offering us something meditative, but I cannot see that GIRM is correct an applying that word to the lectionary text. Perhaps Mark and Jackson can provide music which effectively pushes it in that direction, I have never heard it done.
    I suggest the reflection on the liturgical function, for which Dr Mahrt calls, needs to be done by a higher authority than any of us have. OTOH we can live with diversity provided we recognise that we are doing so. (The neighbouring parish here always treats the RP as a Tract for congregational declamation, and suppresses the antiphon/response.)
  • Responsorial forms have responsories, which are sometimes also called responds.
    Antiphonal forms, which are quite different, have antiphons.
    This is a distinction of which all should be aware when tossing these signifers about.
    Even some 'official' texts or directives often use these terms in error.
    Responsory and Antiphon are not synonymous.
    Each is referential to a specific style of performing psalmody.
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 7,395
    MJO, if you take a photo with your friend's smart phone, he can e-mail a copy to you. It will probably be an image in JPEG format, and you can "attach" the file to a comment in the forum. If perchance the file name should contain spaces, please rename the file so that it doesn't.
    Thanked by 1M. Jackson Osborn
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 1,620
    Most of the time, the schedule of responsorial psalms is not based on the same texts as appear in the proper antiphons.
    Nor would one necessarily so expect, the Gradual having evolved with the one-year cycle of Epistles and the RP intended to "foster meditation on" three Old Testament Lessons. In the Advent I pericopes one can make out pairings of Lesson/Psalm and Epistle/Gospel:

    Advent 1A ("mountain of the LORD's house" "up to the house of the Lord')
    ("Hour now for you to awake" "hour of night when the thief was coming")

    Advent 1B ("Why do you let us wander" "O shepherd")
    ("on the day of our Lord" "when the time will come")

    Advent 1C ("fulfill the promise" "constancy toward those who keep his covenant")
    ("conduct yourselves to please God" "pray that you have strength")

    The Gradual Universi qui te expectant on the other hand in the NO now precedes the Rom. 13 Epistle in Year A, but fits in a little better Years B & C.

    For Gaudete the Gradual Qui sedes follows Phil. 4 "The Lord is at hand". The Gregorian Missal places it after Isa 35 & Zeph. 3 but replaces it with Fuit homo missus a Deo for Year B, apparently considering it a more 'apt' as a preparation for the Gospel. The RP though is matched to the preceding Lesson:

    Advent 3A ("eyes of the blind opened" "gives sight to the blind")

    3B ("Glad tiding to poor" "filled the hungry" also ""God the joy of my soul" "my spirit rejoices")

    3C ("Sing joyfully" "sing praise to the Lord")
    ("Your kindness should be made known" "Whoever has two cloaks should share")
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  • davido
    Posts: 111
    I have always wanted to have responsorial psalm verses along the lines of the offertory verses on page 644 of Fr Weber’s Proper of the Mass. I would have the response set to a psalm tone, and verses set to a mildly neumatic melody - not a formula, but a melody really crafted for each text.

    However, I am not conversant enough with the Gregorian melodic formulae to venture into such a project.
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