Rethinking the Responsorial Psalm
Jun 15, 2008

Rethinking the Responsorial Psalm

Online Edition:

June 2008

Vol. XIV, No. 4

Rethinking the Responsorial Psalm

Has it become a "Bull in a China Shop"?

by Lucy Carroll

When the Mass was revised after the Council, the responsorial psalm was added to the expanded Scripture readings, and it became part of the musical repertoire in the new form of the liturgy (Novus Ordo). At first, the psalms were sung to simple melodies, and truly chanted, as in the Liturgy of the Hours. Little by little, however, singing the psalm took on a life of its own.

Today it isn’t unusual to hear the psalm sung as a solo by the cantor, with no chanting involved. In many modern musical settings for the psalm, even the response line that the congregation is supposed to sing can be complex. So the folks in the pew, who do not have the notes in front of them (or possibly couldn’t read the notes anyway) can’t remember their refrain so they often don’t sing it at all. And often they do not understand the words that are sung by the cantor.

In the “Vetus Ordo” (extraordinary) form of the liturgy, there was no responsorial psalm. Instead, a verse or two of a psalm formed the Gradual and Alleluia between the reading of the Epistle and Gospel. The Novus Ordo, implementing the directives of the Council that called for more Scripture at Mass, brought in two Scripture readings before the Gospel, replaced the Gradual with a psalm; then the Alleluia and another verse introduced the Gospel reading.

The intention of introducing the responsorial psalm within the Liturgy of the Word was to reinstate the chanting of more verses of the psalm, and to involve the folks in the pew in the repeated response after each verse.

At the time the responsorial psalm was introduced into the Mass, what was envisioned was the kind of chanting done with the psalms in the Divine Office (or Liturgy of the Hours). In monastic houses, the antiphoner chanted the antiphon before the psalm, and the congregation alternated chanting the separate verses, ending with the Gloria Patria and a repeat of the antiphon.

Alternatively, the psalm could be chanted “responsorially”: that is, that antiphon line could be repeated by the congregation after each verse of the psalm, like a refrain. This latter method became the “responsorial psalm” of the revised liturgy. (In many Protestant denominations, the psalm for the day is simply read together by the congregation, usually “responsively”, that is, alternating the verses between right and left sides of the congregation.)

The addition of more verses of the psalm was a very positive development. The involvement of the congregation in the response line (a kind of antiphon) is also a happy restoration. The monastic-style chanting was reassuring to people who were concerned about the direction that Catholic Church music was taking in those early days after the Council.

Church documents on sacred music

There is no mention of chanting the psalm in the Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, though it did say that the people should participate:

To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence. (SC 30. Emphasis added.)

The 1967 Instruction on Sacred Music, Musicam Sacram, issued by the Sacred Congregation for Rites and approved by Pope Paul VI, mentions congregational singing of the responsorial psalm, as an alternative to the Gradual after the first two readings:

It is desirable that the assembly of the faithful should participate in the songs of the Proper as much as possible, especially through simple responses and other suitable settings.

The song after the lessons, be it in the form of gradual or responsorial psalm, has a special importance among the songs of the Proper. By its very nature, it forms part of the Liturgy of the Word. It should be performed with all seated and listening to it — and, what is more, participating in it as far as possible. (MS 33)

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) of 1975 referred to the “responsorial psalm” in this way: “The psalmist or cantor of the psalm sings the verses of the psalm” (36). Thus the psalmist was to be the reincarnation of the monastic antiphoner. The chanting during the rest of the Mass was to be shared between the choir and congregation, each having its rightful place. There is no doubt that the psalm was meant to be chanted. Sacrosanctum Concilium set the standard:

The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy … it should be given pride of place in liturgical music. (SC 116)

It also stressed the importance of the choir:

The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care. Choirs must be diligently promoted, especially in cathedral churches; but bishops and other pastors of souls must be at pains to ensure that, whenever the sacred action is to be celebrated with song, the whole body of the faithful may be able to contribute that active participation which is rightly theirs…. (SC 114. Emphasis added.)

However, in the period following the Council, choirs virtually disappeared, and the cantor of the psalm took on the role of soloist throughout the entire Mass. The responsorial psalm also took on a new flavor.

Today, particularly at larger churches and cathedrals, but in some parishes as well, the soloist cantor often sings the psalm as a through-composed piece (that is, the music is different for each verse, with no pause between verses).

The psalm is usually the most complex piece of music in the Mass. The verses of the psalm often become an opportunity for vocal flourishes and solo flights of fancy, and the words often become lost in the involved and non-repetitive style of the music. In some places, the psalm is the piece of music on which most time and work is spent. What was to be the re-institution of monastic-style chanting of the psalm had become a solo showcase, completely out of keeping with the actual intent of the Council’s reform.

The responsorial psalm, however, is definitely not the most important piece of music in the Mass. The Instruction Musicam Sacram placed singing the psalm in the third and last “degree” of parts of the Mass that are sung (MS 29-31). (Hymns and songs fall into this category as well, but that is a story for another day).

According to Musicam Sacram, the “first degree” of music for Mass, the most important, even indispensible sung parts of the Mass consist of the priest’s altar chants and the congregation’s response, the Sanctus, and the Lord’s Prayer. Yet in how many parishes today does one hear an elaborate solo on the psalm, and little to no singing by the priest?

Sing to the Lord perpetuates problems

The guidelines on sacred music approved by the US bishops in November 2007, Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, do little to remedy the situation. The guidelines are fraught with contradictions. Just as the old cliché about a giraffe being a horse designed by a committee, so too does Sing to the Lord have its odd angles and mis-directions.

While Sing to the Lord does refer to some Vatican documents, in some parts it is inconsistent with the principles of sacred music found in authoritative documents such as Musicam Sacram, Pope John Paul’s Chirograph on Sacred Music, and Pope Benedict’s Sacramentum caritatis.

Sing to the Lord states that the responsorial psalm “is of great liturgical and pastoral significance” (155) and, “as a rule, should be sung” (156) and that “every means available in each individual culture is to be employed” (158).

But overemphasizing the importance of the cantor in singing the responsorial psalm runs contrary to the instructions on sacred music that have been given to us since Sacrosanctum Concilium. Choirs were to be encouraged, not soloists.

Although the intention of introducing the responsorial psalm into the liturgy was to increase both participation and understanding of the psalm by the worshippers, what actually happened was the opposite. The focus shifted from the Scripture to a musical performance.

The way we do it…

At our monastery, when the psalm is sung, it is chanted by our choir on a Gregorian psalm tone or a simple tone set by the organist. The response of the people is also a simple, chant-like melody that is easy to pick up and that does not cloud the text itself. Of course, there is much chanting in the monastery: the nuns chant the Office each day, singing Morning Prayer just before our Sunday Mass. A lay Carmelite group that meets at the monastery the first Saturday of each month chants Morning Prayer before their meeting. In each case, the psalms are chanted recto tono (that is, on one note throughout). However, the Magnificat or other Canticles are chanted on a Gregorian tone or another chant tone. At our summer novena in honor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and the autumn triduum, three days of prayer in honor of Saint Thérèse, the entire congregation chants Vesper psalms to simple tones and melodies.

Sing to the Lord suggests that Gregorian psalm tones do not work in English: “Gregorian chant tones are suited to the Latin language … [and] should not be used for those vernacular languages that have final accents, or else the Gregorian cadences should be adapted to fit the accentuation of the particular language” (237). Well, yes, of course the chants will be adapted. And for the record, the chant tones work exceptionally well in English, if one just uses a little common sense. (Gregorian tones 2, 8g, and 3a work very well and are easily adapted to any responsorial psalm in English.)

The view that Gregorian chant tones may not fit English is quite a surprise to all at our monastery, and to Father Samuel Weber, OSB, who uses the Gregorian tones in his setting of the Prayers for the Day. We have used much of Father Weber’s work at the monastery. And we can assure everyone that Gregorian tones do work in English, with some very slight modification.

While our small choir at the monastery chants the verses of the responsorial psalm each Sunday, it took a little practice and a lot of time being together. Our choir meets every Thursday and Sunday year-round, as well as the major feasts of the Church, and the summer novena and fall triduum.

After a few months of chanting together, a small group such as our choir — or a monastic group of monks or nuns — will develop a group feel and can chant together cleanly, so the text can be understood by the listeners.

This may not work for a larger choir, or a choir that is not together as much as our monastery choir. In cases of large choirs, the chanting could be done by one different vocal section each Sunday, or on varied verses of the psalm.

A small group of singers (a mini-choir or kleiner-chor or schola) might be used. This way, the original monastic chanting of the psalm is restored. Even if the verses are sung by a solo cantor of the psalm, singing on a psalm tone allows the text to be sung cleanly and clearly, that the congregation may understand the text, which is, after all, the goal of it all.

Time for change

What was to be a simple chanting of psalm texts has too often become a solo showcase moment for the cantor. It ought not to be the most elaborate musical moment of the Mass, nor the most difficult for the congregation to understand. The responsorial psalm is part of the Liturgy of the Word — and both the words and the music must be clearly intelligible to all, for that is the purpose of the psalm. Too often, however, the responsorial psalm has become the bull in the china shop.

The Church has been told again and again — for over a century, from Pope Pius X to Sacrosanctum Concilium and Musicam Sacram, to Pope John Paul II’s Chirograph and the many writings of Pope Benedict XVI — that Gregorian chant is the great heritage of the Catholic Church, and the most suitable form of music for the sacred liturgy.

There is no better place to begin than by restoring the responsorial psalm to a chant on a simple Gregorian tone or chant-like melody. It is time for the bull to be led, gently, out of the china shop and into the back pasture.


Lucy Carroll, organist and choir director at the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia, teaches at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton. She frequently contributes essays on Catholic music to AB, and is the creator of the “Churchmouse Squeaks” cartoons regularly featured in these pages.



Lucy E. Carroll

Lucy Carroll, organist and choir director at the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia, teaches at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton. She frequently contributes essays on Catholic music to AB, and is the creator of the “Churchmouse Squeaks” cartoons regularly featured in these pages. In Memoriam: Dr. Lucy E. Carroll, DMA