Offertory for Easter


Gradual vs. Responsorial Psalm

From The Musical Shape of the Liturgy by William Mahrt:

This is particularly important, since one of the options of the new missal [the Novus Ordo Missae, the “Ordinary Form” of the Mass, as written in 1969] is to eliminate these chants [the Gradual], replacing them with what is called the responsorial psalm. While the missal states that the chants of the Roman Gradual are the first choice and this responsorial psalm is second, the liturgical books printed in this country, whether official books for the celebrant and ministers, or hand missals of various sorts for the laity, give only the responsorial psalm.4 Thus, the gradual has gone the way of the Roman canon, and has been effectively replaced by the second choice,5 and this on the grounds of restoring an earlier and more authentic practice.

The currently widespread singing of the responsorial psalm to the psalm tones of the office, then, is totally unhistorical. The characteristic tones of melismatic psalmody suit soloistic delivery.

There is another issue concerning the history of the responsorial psalm and the people’s participation in it. 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 a corrupt, late practice, which robs the people of their rightful share in the singing of the Mass. Yet the telling of the 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, favors 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 yet a further twist. In the hope of restoring an ancient practice, an entirely new one has been created. Now that the texts of the responses and the verses have been printed, so that the parishes will burst forth in song, what do they do?…..