Should we really sing the Gradual?

Switching from the Responsorial Psalm to the Gradual could be deemed controversial in many parishes. Despite the stipulation that the chant of the Graduale should be the first choice  in the Novus Ordo, and the Responsorial Psalm is the second, our liturgical books give the Responsorial Psalm as the only option.

UPDATE – I should add that we already sing the Gradual. Sometimes in full in Latin, depending on rehearsal time,  or using an English polyphonic setting and sometimes I set it to a psalm tone in English based on the Rossini psalm tones.  I always worry though that members of the congregation may be confused by the absence of the Responsorial Psalm, and it is something we maybe need to address.

I have been reading William Mahrt’s fascinating new book on the “Shape of the Liturgy.” It is currently available to download from Scridb, and will be in print soon.

In this book Mahrt looks in detail at the historical place of the Gradual versus the Responsorial Psalm.  He analyses historical documentation from the early centuries to try and uncover clues about the use of music in the liturgy  citing St Augustine’s sermons and St John Chrysostom who both refer to the singing of psalm refrains. He concludes there is no record for the introduction of the Gradual but refers to the Ordines, the books with specific rubrics for the services, written from the end of the sixth century, which document the singing of the Gradual.

He continues to explore the myth of the Responsorial Psalm and its place in the history of the liturgy.

The practice of the early church is held up as a model of popular participation, and the singing of the gradual chants by the choir as as a corrupt, late practice, which robs the people of their rightful share in the singing of the Mass. Yet the telling of teh whole story casts a different light upon the matter. The simple fact is that at the time when the popular participation in the responsorial psalm is documented, the Mass commenced with the first reading. There was no introit, Kyrie. or Gloria. All that the people had to sing was one paltry response at the psalm! A Gregorian Mass today, in which the people sing the ordinary and the choir and soloists sing the propers, favours the people much more. What the people sing is more substantial, is conducive to a more stable practice, and can make use of much finer music.

There is no getting away from the fact that the sung Gradual can seem odd sandwiched between two readings in the ordinary form, but then so can a sung Responsorial Psalm.  In the extraordinary form, along with the Alleluia it serves a purpose to accompany the liturgical action on the altar as we head towards the high point of the Gospel. In the ordinary form, it accompanies no action, and a long Gradual with lots of drawn out melismatic phrases could seem unnecessary to some in the congregation. At the same time, a Gradual sung to a simple psalm tone can seem inadequate in that it does not serve as a  “musical complement to the lessons which precede and follow…”

With all that in mind, this Sunday, 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time B, the gradual is Timebunt Gentes.

If you do not want to sing the Rossini Psalm tones then Corpus Christi Watershed now has a fantastic resource of simplified graduals from Richard Rice and from the Chants Abreges editions from both 1926 and 1956.

There is also the English polyphonic setting from gradual 3rd sun although you will have to contend with dubious translations. Heathen – gentes etc.

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4 thoughts on “Should we really sing the Gradual?

  1. Stan Metheny says:

    ‘There is no getting away from the fact that the sung Gradual can seem odd sandwiched between two readings in the ordinary form, but then so can a sung Responsorial Psalm.’

    IMHO, the root of this problem is that the contemplative aspect of active listening to the readings has actually been diminished in the way the Ordinary Form is usually celebrated. In most instances, the focus has been on their content in a didactic way, rather than on conversion of hearts and minds, which the collects remind us is what they’re intended to do. The liturgy of the Word has become the liturgy of (too many) words, as one writer put it well. Hearing THE Word is difficult amid all the noisy chatter. Listening to the chant of the gradual, in which the soaring melody allows the words of Sacred Scripture to slowly soak into the mind and then into the heart, is a very natural – and suitable – complement when the readings are done in an atmosphere in which the incessant business and verbosity are silenced. Not to mention the fact that it creates a very different atmosphere for hearing the second reading. And when the readings are sung, as the new English Missal urges, this is even more apparent.

    Despite my preference for the gradual, I’m not ruling out one option vs. another. One can certainly create some of this more contemplative atmosphere when using a Responsorial psalm; and I would propose that may work even better than singing the gradual to a psalm tone. Also, the reality is that not everyone will be pleased with the more contemplative approach. The challenge to really convert our minds and hearts is not always a pleasant experience. Staying too busy to let the liturgy really change us is often a welcome distraction.

  2. Thomas Windsor says:

    The short answer is Yes, we should sing the Gradual. It is sad that so many ‘Catholics’ would find it strange to hear it sung.

    In the Traditional Rite, it is quite common to hear a Gradual sung in between Lessons; the Easter and Pentecost Vigils, and the 4 Ember Saturdays, have several between the Lessons.

    The way forward could be to start singing the Gradual once a month, with explanations as to why you are singing it. A translation would be good idea, if you are following Vatican II …

  3. Clare says:

    Hi Tom,

    Yes we always have the translation of the Gradual on the Mass Sheets. We have previously just sung the full-length Gradual on Solemnities that have been transferred to a Sunday eg. All Saints. In Advent, we used English polyphonic settings. During Ordinary Sundays we are going to experiment and try and sing it every week. (It’s just two of us who sing it, and we tend to sing it accompanied, for note support.) I must admit, I have been expecting someone to complain, but no one ever has. Infact in the past when we have sung the Gradual from the Graduale, it has encouraged new people to join the choir!

  4. Ashley Payton says:

    Go for it, I say! We started singing the Gradual a few months ago and haven’t stopped since. But, then again, we only sing once a month, so perhaps it’s not too hard on the ears of the congregation.
    We do sing the genuine Gradual melodies – I think that, in the ordinary form, if you don’t sing the Gradual melody you might as well fall back on the Responsorial Psalm.
    If you do sing it, though, be sure to repeat the refrain after the verse – I feel doing this completes the gradual and also, you sing it in the way it was done way back when. The EF habit it to curtail it, but it doesn’t make sense having a verse, if you don’t have a response after it. Also, it’s better for the congregation because they get to hear part of it again thus bringing familiarity. Already, with the mode V graduals, there are many recurrent elements and I think that this helps listeners to appreciate the piece more.

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