Monday, April 10, 2006

Responsorial singing part 2

Here's an e-mail I sent to my choir last fall when one of my members had expressed her consternation at my use of responsorial psalms during communion at the partial exclusion of the old standbys. Here was my response followed by her response to my response:)



Just wanted to say that I was very pleased with the
group yesterday and I'm excited to be working with you
all again after our summer break.

(Female choir member) brought up a good question last week at
rehearsal which went something like this: "Why do we
use responsorial psalms at communion?" I tried my
best to answer off-the-cuff but if you'll indulge me,
I'll try to answer more thoroughly in this e-mail.
This will give me a chance to elucidate some of my
reasonings and also to impart some of my meager
liturgical knowlege to all of you. (Warning: This
e-mail will be lengthy:)

First, let's look at what the GIRM says. The General
Instruction of the Roman Missal comes down to us from
the highest authority: The Congregation for Divine
Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, so what
is contained in the GIRM has primacy over all other
liturgical documents. That being said, here's the
pertinent sections:

86. While the priest is receiving the Sacrament, the
Communion chant is begun. Its purpose is to express
the communicants' union in spirit by means of the
unity of their voices, to show joy of heart, and to
highlight more clearly the "communitarian" nature of
the procession to receive Communion. The singing is
continued for as long as the Sacrament is being
administered to the faithful. (...)

87. In the dioceses of the United States of America
there are four options for the Communion chant:

(1) The antiphon from the Roman Missal or the Psalm
from the Roman Gradual as set to music there or in
another musical setting;

(2) the seasonal antiphon and Psalm of the Simple

(3) a song from another collection of psalms and
antiphons, approved by the United States Conference of
Catholic Bishops or the diocesan Bishop, including
psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical form;

(4) a suitable liturgical song chosen in accordance
with no. 86. This is sung either by the choir alone
or by the choir or cantor with the people. (...)

Brief commentary on these two sections:

86. This section shows the purpose of the communion
chant (song). The implication is that congregational
singing here is the ideal since the chant is to
"express the communicants' union in spirit by means of
the unity of their voices, to show joy of heart, and
to highlight more clearly the "communitarian" nature
of the procession to receive Communion."

87. This section speaks of what is appropriate for
the communion chant. In liturgical documents, when
there is a list within a section, they are listed in
descending order of primacy. Therefore, (1) is
considered more ideal than (2) and so forth. You'll
notice that options 1 and 2 deal with official Church
texts found in the Roman Missal, and two official
"Graduals" (basically hymnals). Now I do use one of
the antiphons in number 1 every week, but only to sing
a solo chant at the beginning of communion.
Occasionally, I'll also use option 2 but rarely. Now
3 and 4 are what concern us the most. No. 3 is what I
usually plan for communion; "a song from another
collection of psalms . . . arranged in responsorial
form." (Though I don't think the US Bishops have
officially approved our Gather Comprehensive hymnal:) Now no. 4 is
where other hymns fit in such as "I Am the Bread of
Life" and "One Bread, One Body." Notice that it says
that option no. 4 has to be chosen in accordance with
GIRM 86 (above) so obviously not everything goes in
this instance.

So to summarize all that, option no. 3 is preferred
over no. 4 although no. 4 is plausible.

Now those are the liturgical factors involved. The
pastoral factors are important as well though and I
think these are the areas of concern. Let me once
again state my pastoral reasonings for choosing
responsorial psalms:

1) Brief and simple refrains--I try to choose texts
that contain melodic and memorable refrains that can
be easily assimilated and memorized, in the hopes that
they can be sung without hymnals in hand. In between
these refrains, a heavenly soloist:) sings a verse
straight out of God's hymnal (the Psalter) with a text
that can be meditated upon by the congregation.

Practically, it also gives the choir a chance to sing
some solos, duets, etc. which there aren't a lot of
opportunities for throughout the rest of the liturgy.

2) The "standard" communion hymns are often very
difficult--Let's take a brief look at the 3
"mainstays" in my opinion:

a) I Am the Bread of Life--not a psalm text but a
very appropriate one for communion and a very
beautiful one also. But, I defy ANYONE to tell me
that this is an easy melody to sing. The range is an
octave and a fifth (low Ab to high Eb) which is either
too low for many (me) or too high for many (me). Add
to that the huge leaps in the refrain (and I will
RAISE) of a minor seventh and then a whole octave (!)
to the high Eb, and you've got a difficult tune.
Don't get me wrong, I love this melody and this piece,
but I wouldn't wish it upon my worst enemy to sing for
a recital.

b) One Bread, One Body--The range in this one
really isn't a problem. It's a ninth (low b to high
C) which is very manageable for the average singer.
The problem with this one are the absurdly long notes
in verses as well as some long ones in the refrain.
Here's verse one:

Gentile or JEW (4 beats)
servant or FREE (4 beats)
woman or MAN (7 beats!!!)
no MORE (7 beats!!!)

plus the fact that ideally, you would do those last
two lines in one breath, you're looking at a total of
17 beats at a slow tempo!!! I'm surprised we don't
have parishioners passing out during this one.

3) Taste and See--Though this one has longer
notes as well, the range is a fairly comfortable
octave (low C to higher C). My beef with this one is
the difficult tessitura. The tessitura of a piece is
where most of the pitches lie in a particular range.
For example a piece can have manageable range (such as
this one, c-C) but a difficult tessitura if most of
the notes were sitting on the top of that range
(around high Bb's and high C's) which is what this
piece does. Think about this part of the refrain:

the (f) good-(high C for 3 beats) ness of (high C for
4 more beats) the (f) Lord (high C for 6 beats!).

Similar thing happens in the verse where a high C is
sung on different words for almost two full measures.
If I made the altos sing the melody on this song (as
well as I Am the Bread of Life), they'd quit:) By the
way, in general, I really like this song as well.

Now of course, these are the "mainstays" for a reason;
people really enjoy them and they want to hear them.
And I won't disparage that point, but part of it is
just the familiarity and the sentimental value of the
tunes. For instance "Taste and See" was written in
1983--we've been singing it for 22 years. One Bread,
One Body--1978--we've been singing it for 27 years ( I
wasn't even born yet). I am the Bread of
Life--1966!--almost 40 years!!! To contrast, some of
these psalms that I'm trying to get into the people's
heads, we've only been doing for 2 years, if that.
Give 'em time.

For those of you who mentioned that a few parishioners
had approached you about our current communion
practice, thanks for sharing their comments. In the
future, please ask them to approach me as well so I
can personally hear their feedback and be able to ask
them some questions as well. I definitely value
comments from choir members but as musicians, our
perceptions are usually much different from those of
the folks in the pews. Please encourage them to speak
with me after masses and tell them that I would love
to hear their feedback.

If you're still reading this, congratulations. I
didn't think you'd make it. There's more I'd like to
say (there always is) but I think this is enough for a
Monday morning. If you have any comments on this that
you'd like to share either to me personally or to the
whole group (if they don't mind), please do; I like to
see situations from many different perspectives.

HOLY COW! I'm sorry I asked! Talk about TMI! Just kidding (kind of).
Seriously, thanks for the very well thought-out answer to my question.
I did
read the entire thing, largely owing to the fact that I was impressed
your use of the work elucidate early on in the e-mail. I see your point
liturgically the psalms are most appropriate, but would argue that
responsorial types of songs seem to contradict the "unity of spirit"
since the congregation is only invited to sing during the
Also, difficult tessituras and high notes aside, I think people are
likely to sing familiar songs than easy-to-sing songs. (They feel easy
because they're familiar - look at the national anthem; EVERYBODY sings
and it's certainly not easy to sing!)I agree that if you kind of stick
a few relatively simple, "catchy" responses, they, too, will soon
familiar. But, I don't think we should abandon the old familiar
hymns, including others than the three "mainstays" you mentioned.
Those are my thoughts for what they're worth.

Well, I would definitely question her assertion that EVERYBODY sings the National Anthem. Not at ballgames that I attend at least.


At Monday, April 10, 2006 4:38:00 PM, Anonymous CastCantor said...

And the range of the National Anthem is identical to the range of "I Am The Bread of Life," isn't it? Holy Hypocrite, Batman!

At Monday, April 10, 2006 5:45:00 PM, Anonymous Schola said...

Well, the National Anthem is generally "performed" in Bb for many official events (coming from the military band tradition), although in Gather Comprehensive, it is written in Ab.

There are many songs written for "communion use" that still use the Psalm approach, where we hope that people standing in line for communion will still sing the familiar refrain (Eat this bread from Taize, On Eagle's wings, etc.) even if they don't know the verses.


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