FROM THE BOOK OF PSALMS TO THE RESPONSORIAL PSALM (10) – The Gradual

– Aurelio Porfiri

In previous parts of this series, we have seen the importance of Psalms in the life of the Church, not only for spiritual reasons but also the great importance that the psalmodic texts hold in the liturgy. As we have already mentioned, most of the texts that are sung in the liturgy are taken from the Psalms. We should remember that there exists a text for the antiphon of the introit, one or more texts for the antiphon of communion and one for the offertory (at least theoretically, because today the text is not yet presented in the Missal as it is in the extraordinary form of the Roman rite). So the Psalms are at the core of the Roman liturgy.

Author Paul Inwood, one of the well known British composers of liturgical music, in an essay called Psalm Singing in Roman Catholic Liturgy has said: “Before the Second Vatican Council, Roman Catholics were an unbiblical people. Today, all that has changed and the scriptures are familiar to regular churchgoers. Two major factors in making this transition have been the use of vernacular translations and the reintroduction of the Responsorial Psalm into the Mass after an absence of over fifteen hundred years. With the Responsorial Psalm, the object of the post-conciliar liturgical reformers was to place into the mouths of worshipers, the sung texts of brief psalm extracts as refrains, for this was always a sung item in the form in which it flourished in roughly the fifth through the sixth centuries. The reason it had died out was that musicians got hold of it, resulting in its replacement by prolix Latin Gradual chants, which effectively excluded the assembly as the music became more and more elaborate. The post-conciliar reformers, then, were intent upon engaging the people once again as an integral part of the chant after the First Reading, which links that reading to the Gospel. To aid this, along with the reinstatement of the Responsorial Psalm, the role of the cantor or psalmist was reinstated (and this, in turn, has led to the development of the ministry of cantor or leader of the song for the entire celebration, not just the psalm).

I think it unfair to call the pre-conciliar Catholics as unbiblical people. They maintain their relationship with the Bible through other means. Honestly, I don’t feel that most of the Catholics today are very knowledgeable about the Bible just because they can hear it in their language. This rationalist reductionism, the idea that understanding comes when you are able to know the meaning of a certain sentence is typical of a certain way of thinking. I may state something that you grasp the meaning easily, but my words may not touch you because you are not emotionally moved by them. On the other hand, if I say something in another language, you may not understand its meaning, but if said in such an expressive way that it has a profound effect on you that you actually understand its semantic meaning.

I remember my experience as a teacher in Macau, talking to my students about music; they were listening to Korean (K-pop) or Japanese (J-pop) singers, but they didn’t know these languages. But the way the music was presented was for them more effective than many Cantopop singers (the Cantopop is commercial music in Cantonese). So to say that we became biblical because we can understand the meaning is really incorrect. Indeed, we will touch on this subject further on.

Before the introduction of the responsorial Psalm in the liturgy, with the new rite of the Mass that was introduced in 1969, the Gradual was sung after the first reading. Of course, this still holds true in the Masses that are celebrated according to the pre-conciliar Missal everywhere in the world. If you go to one of these Masses, you will see that after the first reading, the choir will sing the Canto or Gradual and the congregation listens to the singing. Because the Gradual is not a song that the congregation can join in due to its technical difficulties. The responsorial psalm was called also Psalmus responsorius. According to Alfredo Pellegrino Ernetti (Storia del Canto gregoriano), this is a very ancient song in the liturgy, that at the beginning was probably alternated between the people and the soloist. The passage from the singing of people and schola (or solo) and the solo and schola come because the melodies became more and more rich with embellishments that make it very difficult for people who are not trained to join in. Certainly, they are among the most beautiful and also difficult pieces in the Gregorian chant repertoire. The name Gradual comes from the place they were performed, on the steps going to the ambo (Gradus); Father Ernetti, already quoted previously has another theory, that the gradus is not referring to the steps going to the ambo, but to the ambo itself and uses some passages from the Ordo Romanus I (a sort of liturgical handbook that refers to the Mass under Pope Gregory the first, the great liturgical reformer) and other sources. A.G. Martimort (The Church at Prayer, vol. II) interprets this as two subsequent moments: first was sung at the ambo and then later on the steps going to the ambo.

Whatever the origin of the name, we know that at the beginning, this Gradual was quite simple and that lately it has evolved in a more lavish musical rendition. Saint Augustine, in his Exposition on Psalm 120, gave us a witness of the responsorial use of the Psalms in his time (4th century): “The Psalm which we have just heard chanted, and have responded to with our voices, is short, and very profitable. You will not long toil in hearing, nor will you toil fruitlessly in working. For it is, according to the title prefixed to it, a song of degrees. Degrees are either of ascent or of descent. But degrees, as they are used in this Psalm, are of ascending…There are therefore both those who ascend and those who descend on that ladder. (Genesis 28, 12) Who are they that ascend? They who progress towards the understanding of things spiritual. Who are they that descend? They who, although, as far as men may, they enjoy the comprehension of things spiritual: nevertheless, descend unto the infants, to say to them such things as they can receive, so that, after being nourished with milk, they may become fitted and strong enough to take spiritual meat…”

Let us not forget what was said by the same Augustine in the Confessions, talking about the role of liturgical music and referring to the style of singing the Psalms under the great Bishop Saint Athanasius: “On the other hand, when I avoid very earnestly this kind of deception, I err out of too great austerity. Sometimes I go to the point of wishing that all the melodies of the pleasant songs to which David’s Psalter is adapted should be banished both from my ears and from those of the Church itself. In this mood, the safer way seemed to me the one I remember was once related to me concerning Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, who required the readers of the psalm to use so slight an inflection of the voice that it was more like speaking than singing. However, when I call to mind the tears I shed at the songs of thy Church at the outset of my recovered faith, and how even now I am moved, not by the singing but by what is sung (when they are sung with a clear and skillfully modulated voice), I then come to acknowledge the great utility of this custom. Thus, I vacillate between dangerous pleasure and healthful exercise. I am inclined–though I pronounce no irrevocable opinion on the subject–to approve of the use of singing in the church, so that by the delights of the ear, the weaker minds may be stimulated to a devotional mood.”

In ancient times, the practice was that the Schola sang the refrain, then the soloist sang the verse (only one remaining after the embellishments became very elaborate) and then the Schola repeated the refrain. In modern times, sometimes the refrain is not repeated after the verse, even if this is still possible. We cannot forget that in the tradition of sacred music, the text of the Gradual was often used as a base for new musical compositions, that were always performed by the singers or Schola. So for the congregation, this was a moment for listening, for the enjoyment of the beauty of God through the beauty of music and singing. This is not excluding the people from singing, it is just inviting them to the enjoyment that is not in opposition with their actual joining in repeating a refrain. So, this idea that the modern Responsorial Psalm is an improvement with respect to the Gradual has no ground.

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