Jul 15, 2007

Communion Antiphon with Psalms

Online Edition
July – August 2007
Vol. XIII, No. 5

The Sound of a Catholic Communion
CMAA’s New Release:
Communio: Communion Antiphon with Psalms

Interview with Jeffrey Tucker

A significant event in the field of sacred music occurred this June, when the Church Music Association of America (CMAA) released a new book that is sure to become an essential part of every parish musician’s working library: Communio: Communion Antiphons with Psalms, edited by Richard Rice.

Adoremus interviewed CMAA’s Jeffrey Tucker, who believes that this book “could change the way a parish experiences the Communion rite”.

“Following the rubrics as the Church has given us”, he says, “could cause our liturgical experience to be much more beautiful, and much more … Catholic”.

Adoremus: Tell us about the Communio Project and why it is important.

Tucker: The idea is to put the Mass Propers back into liturgical circulation in Catholic liturgy, starting with the Communion chant. Let me explain what I mean.

Every Catholic knows the problem, but not everyone knows its source or solution. During Communion, the most contemplative and introspective time of the Mass, we are often confronted with the demand that we sing a hymn, usually a contemporary standard like “One Bread, One Body”. Music directors have some sense that they are supposed to do this. Seminars leaders have told them this for decades. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) seems to provide support in referring to a Communion song.

Now, in the usual experience, no one sings. Certainly no one wants to slog a hymnal up to Communion. Mostly, the demand that we sing during Communion violates our sense of the moment that calls for internal rather than external participation. As a result, some music directors despair and just have the choir sing alone or play some mood music. They really don’t know what else to do.

Adoremus: The GIRM (§87), as adapted for the United States, gives four options for the Communion chant; the first option is “the antiphon from the Roman Missal or the psalm from the Roman Gradual as set to music there or in another musical setting”. How does the Communio project respond to this?

Tucker: GIRM §87 gives four options: the official antiphon, a simple substitute for the same, an approved song, or something else suitable. The first option is the one that provides the clue to the ideal: the Communion antiphon from the Graduale Romanum (Roman Gradual) for sung Masses or from the Missal for spoken Masses.

What is the Graduale Romanum? Most Catholic musicians today have little or no idea. What it is, in fact, is the official liturgical book for the choir.

The official version of the Graduale, published by the Solesmes Monastery, is always in Latin. It has been with us since the earliest years of the Church.

The Graduale includes a chant that changes every week called the “Communio”. In other words, there is a piece of music that is prescribed for Communion by the liturgy itself. It is a name for one of what are called the Propers, which are the texts of the Mass that change from week to week. When Vatican II called for Gregorian chant to be given primacy in the liturgy, it was calling for the Propers to be sung as a priority over anything else. The distance we’ve traveled from that is well illustrated by the fact that most Catholics, including musicians, have no idea what the Propers even are!

So we gain a clue from the previous paragraph in the GIRM, §86, which says: “While the priest is receiving the Sacrament, the Communion chant is begun”. Notice that it says the Communion chant, not a Communion chant. What this actually refers to is the Communion chant from the Graduale. How many parishes do this? Not many but the numbers are growing.

What the Communio book does is to collect all the antiphons and psalms into a single book for easy use.

Anyone can download the chants or buy the book at MusicaSacra.com/books.

Adoremus: What about translations?

Tucker: English translations of these texts [from the Douay version] — along with the biblical references — are provided in Communio, for the Communion Antiphons and Psalms so that people will understand exactly what the schola (the choir or body of singers) is chanting in Latin.

Adoremus: This brief chant of the Communion Antiphon alone can hardly take up the whole of Communion time.

Tucker: Precisely, and that is why the Church also prescribes psalms to go along with the antiphon. The earliest rubrics (directions for liturgical celebration) we have specify this. The most extensive discussion of the practice of chanting the psalm with the antiphon was in a 1958 document, De musica sacra et sacra liturgia issued by the Sacred Congregation for Rites, 27 (www.adoremus.org/1958Intro-sac-mus.html).

The current GIRM (87), particularly in the original version [unadapted for the United States], alludes to it as well. An antiphon from the Graduale Romanum may also be used for the Communion song, with or without the psalm. The idea is not to sing the Communion Antiphon once but several or many times, alternating with the psalm verses.

And this is certainly worth doing! These pieces are glorious, little symphonies in miniature. Their music is often highly picturesque. The music matches the words, and the words reflect the Gospel of the day or a theme of the season. They are perfect, actually, some of the most beautiful music ever written. The idea that a modern song can compete is ridiculous. The antiphon grows ever more beautiful with repetition.

And, no, the people don’t “sing along”. This music is sung by the schola.

Is this robbing people of participation? In no way. There are parts of the Mass that belong to the people and parts that are reserved to the schola alone. This is an example of the latter. And the sound of the antiphon and psalm creates the most beautiful atmosphere — subtle change and movement within a changeless and stable musical framework. It is something you can listen to for extended periods. It is the ideal Communion music. So it turns out that the Church rubrics are actually very wise!

Adoremus: GIRM §87 also says, “If there is no singing, however, the Communion Antiphon found in the Missal may be recited either by the faithful, or by some of them, or by a lector. Otherwise the priest himself says it after he has received Communion and before he distributes Communion to the faithful”.

Why is there sometimes a difference between the Communion Antiphon we find in the “missalette” and the one in Communio?

Tucker: The Communion Antiphon that is given in the Lectionary and appears in “missalettes” is for spoken Masses only. The Graduale’s Communion Antiphon is for sung Masses. About two thirds of the time, they are the same. But another third of the time, they are different. (The 1970 GIRM noted this variation in §34, which said “The psalm when sung may be either the psalm assigned in the Lectionary or the gradual from the Graduale Romanum or the responsorial psalm or the psalm with Alleluia as the response from The Simple Gradual in the form they have in those books”. But a great deal of confusion persists.

It is impossible not to notice that the Graduale’s sung texts, the traditional texts, are richer and more fitting. They also have a 1500-year history behind them. There is no question which is to be preferred. (Christoph Tietze discusses this issues at length in the Winter 2006 issue of Sacred Music.)

The striking fact is that the English version of the Graduale, the Gregorian Missal from Solesmes, doesn’t give the biblical reference for the psalm verse. The Graduale Romanum provides the reference, but not the text. The text provides the words but, of course, not the music.

What we do is to provide both music and words for both antiphons and psalms. So for the schola, it becomes merely a matter of: print, practice, and sing.

In Communio we aren’t just talking about a different hymn or song at Mass. We are talking about doing the ideal during the most tender and personally sensitive part of the liturgy. This changes everything for the good.

I should also mention this interesting benefit: the psalm text used in Communio is the Nova Vulgata, the official Latin Bible. Communio is the edition of these psalms available in Latin and set according to the proper chant tone.

Adoremus: Can parish choirs or scholas really sing this music? Is it not too hard for most people?

Tucker: It is not easy, to be sure, and the beginning schola would do best to start with basic chant hymns, or settings from the Ordinary of the Mass such as Kyrie or Sanctus or the Agnus Dei.

But what about stage two? Here is where the Propers come in, and there is no better starting place than with the Communion chant.

There are a number of reasons for this. They are beautiful and easier than other chants. They illustrate just how heavenly, complex, varied, and imaginative Gregorian chant really is. This comes as a revelation to people who have never heard it or only heard a few chant hymns.

The other Propers in the Mass should also be explored but they are a bit more of a hurdle. Most parishes have displaced the Introit with a processional or entrance hymn. The psalm chant is most often replaced by the one in the Lectionary.

The Offertorio is a bit problematic because the music is so difficult. These are all worth doing, even so, but the best and most accessible place to begin is the Communion chant.

Very few pastors are going to object to this, and even if they do initially, the music alone compels a kind of assent. And the words of the General Instruction are explicit on this point, by placing this first among the choices. The schola is only doing precisely what it is supposed to do.

Adoremus: CMAA has other offerings, in addition to this new book. Your web site, MusicaSacra.com, provides many free downloads of music and other materials. How can these resources be useful to ordinary parishes?

Tucker: The accessibility of resources on our site is just wonderful. The typesetting master who put all this together is Richard Rice. He is an incredible expert at the typography of chant, and an expert at “pointing” the psalms for singing. And he produces beautiful editions.

Adoremus: Tell us about the technology that the CMAA has used in the production of these chant resources.

Tucker: We’ve stayed with the most advanced methods possible. The editions are produced using specialized fonts. We generate files in Portable Document Format and put them in a database on the web for easy download. (They are lightweight files that use vector graphic technology to achieve graphic perfection.)

Creating the book, Communio, then, meant pulling them all together. And we are using print-on-demand technology to keep the costs down. This is the only way a small organization with no funding, such as ours, can go about it. But it happens to be the best way, too.

The book includes not just the Sundays in the Church year but also special solemnities. It contains the chants that are part of the classical rite (i.e. 1962 Missal) that are not included in the new Graduale. This way the book can be useful for all Catholic musicians working with the Roman Rite.

Oh, and by the way, there are no permissions issues associated with reprinting these chants in parish programs, along with the translations provided.

In doing this, we feel that we are working within the Solesmes tradition — the Benedictine monastery credited with the “rediscovery” of Gregorian chant in the 19th century — which was an innovator in print, photography, and even in sound recording. We are just taking it to the next step. I can imagine Dom [André] Mocquereau’s being told of what is happening right now — the chant spreading, available to the world, new publications, workshops around the country, scholars starting up and working so hard in parish after parish — and can almost see the smile that would come across his face.

Adoremus: What are some of your favorite Communios?

Tucker: Oh, there are so many! I think of Tu mandasti, which speaks of keeping the law diligently, but it does so in the joyful voice, which is something of a surprise. And yet we learn that keeping the law is a joy in Christian life! The final line that suggests firmness of conviction in the forward motion of life itself.

Another is Qui vult venire that sings with conviction of taking up the cross and traveling to the unexpected places, as led by Jesus.

Vovete is enormously creative. It switches from tranquil to fiery when the text speaks of the “the awesome God who takes away the life of princes”. Visionem sounds like the very embodiment of a musical secret, and the text is: “tell no one what you have seen”.

Acceptabis conjures up an ominous sense of burning offerings on an altar. Or another that seems to be forever on my mind is Oportet te. Why? It is chant that tells the story of the Prodigal Son. The father is the voice. And you can almost imagine him dancing with excitement over his son’s return!

Each one is so beautiful. It is a special treat, too, to return to a chant one, two, or three years after the first time it was sung. It is like greeting an old friend.

We also offer many wonderful resources for starting out. In many ways, we are all beginners in this project, so no one should be afraid to try to do what the Church is asking us to do.


Jeffrey Tucker is managing editor of the journal Sacred Music, published by the Church Music Association of America; director of the St. Cecilia Schola Cantorum in Auburn, Alabama; and a member of the board of directors of CMAA.

E-mail address: [email protected].

CMAA Web site: www.musicasacra.com.



The Editors