A few words on the Responsorial Psalm

Aurelio Porfiri

Hey… does anyone know what the destiny of the responsorial psalm is? Please let me know, because I am starting right now to be confused. Now, let us see together some background information. In the Mass before the liturgical reform, today called the Extraordinary Form of the Roman rite we had the Gradual, a very complex composition for very skilled singers. Some masterworks of Gregorian chant are indeed in this musical genre. Now, that was a lyrical meditation on the psalmodic text and, at the end, on the topic of the entire liturgy of the day. So we had there the exaltation of the text, the flourishing of the words. Now, after the liturgical reform we have the responsorial psalm. So – this was the rationale – that also the people can participate joining in the refrain. No problem about that. But still we need to remember that this moment is a lyrical, poetical, musical meditation of the psalm.

Today, in lucky cases, we focus just on the refrain, giving to the psalmodic text some recitative tones, referred by someone as the “Gelinau disease”. Someone can tell me: you are also doing the same thing, we saw your responsorial psalms! It is partially true. When I compose responsorial psalms sometimes I also tend to find refuge in this easy escape (mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!) so I want to say to myself first, and to others after, that maybe it is time to rethink the role and importance of this liturgical moment in the shining light of a wonderful musical tradition. If ever there will be a hospital for liturgical musicians, the section for those with the disease mentioned above will be for sure one of the most crowded…

There is also the use of singing all the psalm, including the verses, by the entire congregation. I think this is an abuse, coming from the influence of protestant liturgies. The responsorial psalm is “responsorial” and requires one skilled singer to propose the melody for the “response” and the spiritual good of all the congregation. The singing of the entire congregation will force using a tune that is not elaborated or intended for solo singing. There is this aspect of listening and participating that was really neglected in recent decades, focusing only in the participating, going to one extreme to the other: “Shema Israel, Hear O Israel,” says the Bible!

We have this new disease that a known Italian liturgist has called “participationism” (Father Silvano Maggiani): everyone has to do something. But this was never asked by the Vatican II that was just emphasizing ministerial roles; it means that roles that require skills (like singing, playing, reading and so on) have to be done by people that have these skills. There is a time for singing and a time for listening to a beautiful voice, that is a gift from God that has to be appreciated because it reflects the beauty coming from the highest source of Beauty, Him.

How should this responsorial psalm be performed? We ought to remember that is a lyrical moment. I am not in favor of chanting on a recitative tone for this liturgical moment and certainly this way does not work well with tonal languages like Chinese. It has to be a melody, but a melody that has a liturgical quality, not just copying easy listening tunes from pop music. Writing a responsorial psalm is not easy but if the outcome is good, it really adds splendor and depth to the liturgy of the Word and to the whole Eucharistic celebration, for the glory of God and the edification of the faithful.

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