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Responsory [Great responsory of Matins and Vespers; responsorium prolixum]locked

  • Paul Frederick Cutter,
  • Brad Maiani,
  • Davitt Moroney
  •  and John Caldwell
  • Paul Frederick Cutter, assisted by Brad Maiani

A category of Western chant serving at Matins and monastic Vespers as musical postludes to the reading of lessons, as the gradual and alleluia do at the Mass. Indeed, responsories make up the greater part of Matins, and in the total repertory of Roman chant are surpassed in quantity only by Office antiphons. From about 600 in their earliest musical source, the Hartker manuscript dating from about 1000 (PalMus, 2nd ser., i, 1900, 2/1970), the number of responsories increased to nearly 1000 in the 13th-century Worcester Antiphoner (PalMus, 1st ser., xii, 1922/R).

1. History of the form.

The responsories of the Office (like the gradual and alleluia of the Mass) are termed responsorial chants because in them choir responds with a refrain to verses sung by a cantor. In method of delivery they are clearly related to responsorial psalmody, although it is important that a distinction be maintained between the more ancient practice of responsorial psalm singing and the specific liturgical genre that bears its name.

Beginning in the late 4th century, patristic references to responsorial psalmody are fairly abundant. Basil describes the practice as ‘entrusting the lead of the chant to one person, while the rest sing in response’. Athanasius tells of calming a frightened crowd by enjoining a deacon to read a psalm, while the people interject the refrain from Psalm cxxxv (‘for his mercy endures for ever’). Elsewhere Ambrose compares the people’s response to the ‘roaring of waves’, and Augustine mentions a ‘short and highly beneficial psalm’ being sung and ‘responded to’.

Most of these patristic references specifically mention psalmic texts delivered by a soloist in a cathedral setting, with responses sung by a lay choir. Moreover, most suggest that the selected psalm was sung in its entirety; when the source of the respond text is mentioned, the latter is nearly always said to be derived from the same psalm entrusted to the soloist. The responsories preserved in the medieval sources, however, rarely take their respond texts from the psalms: only two sets, of about 14 chants apiece, are exclusively psalmic (presumably these are the oldest layers of the repertory). With rare exceptions, they are provided with only a single verse. Except in their use of similar performance forces, there is thus little apparent connection between the responsorial singing mentioned in the early references and the medieval responsories of the night Office.

The first description of the responsory as an independent genre of liturgical chant does not appear until the 6th-century Rule of St Benedict (Hucke, 1980). In contrast to the congregational psalm singing described by the Church Fathers, Benedict makes particular reference to responsories as chants with an intimate connection to the night Office lectionary, their texts being selected specifically for relevance to the readings they accompany (‘lectiones cum responsoriis suis’). This accords well with the repertory contained in the earliest musical sources, for many responsory texts are taken directly from the Old Testament readings they frame.

In the medieval chant tradition the responsory usually consisted of a choral respond, a single solo psalm verse and the repetendum (the last part of the respond repeated), yielding a ternary structure. It is likely that the responsory originally included the entire psalm, with the verses – sung by a soloist – separated by a brief congregational refrain. Its abbreviation from the complete psalm to a single verse must have come about through a change in its melodic nature. When the congregation relinquished its singing role to the trained choir, the respond section probably became more elaborate in style (and therefore longer) and required fewer verses in order to avoid excessive overall length. Isidore of Seville indicated that only one verse was sung in his time, and Peter Wagner suggested that analogous changes occurred in the graduals of the Mass as early as the 5th century.

An approximation to the original practice was nevertheless maintained at Rome in the 9th century. Amalarius of Metz gives the following account of responsory performance in Rome at that time:

First a soloist sings the respond, which the choir repeats; the soloist next sings the verse, followed by choral repetition of the respond; then the soloist sings the doxology, with the choir now repeating only the second part of the respond; and finally soloist and choir, in turn, each sing the complete respond.

Amalarius also reports that the doxology, which had long been part of the responsory in France, had only recently been added to responsories in Rome.

In France, evidently, the repeat had become only partial after the verses as well as the doxology. Moreover, the original twofold initial statement of the respond had been reduced to a single statement, intoned by the soloist and continued by the choir. Thus the Frankish responsory in the early 9th century must have been performed as follows: respond (solo–chorus), verse (solo), latter half of respond (chorus); or, with doxology: respond (solo–chorus), verse (solo), latter half of respond (chorus), doxology (solo), latter half of respond (chorus).

Rome maintained the earlier form of fuller performance well into the 12th century, at least for major feasts; rubrics in the Roman antiphoner (I-Rvat S Pietro B79, c1175) call for the complete respond after the doxology in the first three responsories for the first Sunday of Advent, and after the verse in all the responsories of Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, and St Peter and St Paul. This manuscript reveals, however, that considerable abbreviation had occurred even in Rome. The soloist now only intoned the respond, although a full choral statement still followed; moreover, for the bulk of the responsories the repetendum was indicated after the verse(s). Evidently, by the 12th century, Roman practice had come to conform almost entirely to Frankish. How far it conformed is well illustrated by the responsory Aspiciens a longe, which, doubtless by virtue of its position as first responsory of the liturgical year, had three verses and doxology. The text of the respond reads: ‘Aspiciens a longe, ecce video Dei potentiam venientem, et nebulam totam terram tegentem. Ite obviam ei, et dicite: Nuntia nobis si tu es ipse qui regnaturus es in populo Israel’. Both the Roman and Frankish versions have successively shorter repetenda. The repetendum after verse 1 begins with ‘Ite obviam’; that after verse 2 with ‘Nuntia’; that after verse 3 with ‘qui regnaturus’. But there is a divergence in practice at the fourth repetendum; in the Frankish version, the repetendum after the doxology consists only of ‘in populo Israel’, whereas in the Roman version – as a vestige of an earlier practice – the respond is repeated in full.

2. Texts.

  • Brad Maiani

Table 1 gives the Matins readings as they are prescribed in the early 8th-century Ordo romanus XIIIA (see the two right-hand columns; in this source the liturgical year begins in March), together with the responsory texts accompanying those readings, as found in the much later notated sources for the Office (see the two left-hand columns). For much of the year, responsories are transmitted in distinct groups called historiae, named according to the particular biblical source of their texts (‘historia de Job’, ‘historia de Judith’ etc.). This is especially true for the weeks after Pentecost and during Lent, and in a more indirect manner for the Advent and Christmas seasons. As these texts are interspersed between the readings at Matins, which are taken from the same book of scripture as the responsories, each historia cycle is designed to exemplify and sometimes summarize the lections it accompanies. The number of responsories in a cycle can vary in number from as few as five to as many as 15. The interconnection between chant texts and lectionary determines the most common deployment of the responsories, but it would appear to be a comparatively late phenomenon. One of two small sets of exclusively psalmic responsories, found in the antiphoners for the weeks following the Epiphany, is unrelated to readings, and in fact is arranged in ascending numerical order based upon the psalm from which each responsory is derived. In spite of their placement in the liturgical books, they were apparently sung throughout the year on any feast without Proper responsories of its own. These ‘de psalmis’ responsories, along with a related psalmic set for the third and fourth weeks after Easter, are probable remnants of an earlier liturgical ordering than the historiae cycles that make up the bulk of the repertory (they are shown in bold type in Table 1; see Hucke, 1980). Indeed, a revision of the night Office lectionary seems to have occurred some time in the first half of the 8th century, resulting in the reading list preserved in Ordo XIIIA. It has been suggested that this revision, in an effort to accommodate the expanded schedule of readings, led to additions to the responsory repertory (Maiani, 1998).

Responsory Great responsory of Matins and Vespers responsorium prolixum 2. Texts.: Table 1

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3. Melodies.

  • Paul Frederick Cutter, assisted by Brad Maiani

(i) Modality.

The Roman chant exists in two versions: Gregorian, found particularly in music manuscripts copied in Carolingian domains from the 10th century, and Old Roman, found in a small group of manuscripts (including the S Pietro antiphoner mentioned above) produced in Rome from the mid-11th to the mid-13th centuries.

Old Roman and Gregorian are liturgically nearly identical but reveal two distinct yet cognate melodic traditions. The similarities, often approaching identity, bespeak a common origin; the differences, on occasion quite striking, show the stylistic independence of the two repertories (see Old Roman chant). The following analysis takes into account both versions of Roman chant.

Responsories possess two distinct parts, respond and verse. For the latter, each repertory has a set of eight recitation formulae or ‘tones’, one for each mode. All Old Roman and all but a few freely composed, late examples of Gregorian verses, and the doxologies, were sung to these tones (ex.1: Gregorian, after AS, 4; Old Roman, from I-Rvat S Pietro B79). Neither melodic tradition is entirely stable; moreover, the Old Roman tones are based on a transcription of only part of the repertory and are thus no more than tentative as yet.

Responsory Great responsory of Matins and Vespers responsorium prolixum 3. Melodies. (i) Modality.: Ex.1

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Responsory Great responsory of Matins and Vespers responsorium prolixum 3. Melodies. (i) Modality.: Ex.1 continued

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The Old Roman chant manuscripts contain 617 Old Roman responsories together with 15 borrowings from the Gregorian repertory. The distribution of the verses among the eight tones is shown in Table 2. The corresponding figures from the Hartker manuscript, the earliest known Gregorian antiphoner with modal indications, are shown in Table 3.

Responsory Great responsory of Matins and Vespers responsorium prolixum 3. Melodies. (i) Modality.: Table 2

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Responsory Great responsory of Matins and Vespers responsorium prolixum 3. Melodies. (i) Modality.: Table 3

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Essentially, both repertories have the same modal distribution, and the picture is not affected significantly by the great increase in the number of responsories in later Gregorian sources. The Roman responsories show a predilection for the tetrardus modes with a corresponding neglect of the tritus modes.

(ii) Structural principles.

Melodically, the responds can be grouped in three categories: (1) standard adaptations to many different texts, (2) centos composed of stock phrases or patterns arranged in varying order from piece to piece (see Centonization), or (3) freely composed. Since examples of the latter are rare, ‘the art of responsorial composition is, to a very large extent, the art of adapting the different clauses of a liturgical text to different well-defined but plastic and adaptable musical phrases’ (Frere, 5). The following general remarks can be made about these basic formal units. In both the Gregorian and the Old Roman repertories the pattern is essentially a recitation whose foundation is the reciting note. The text dominates and straightforward declamation is the rule. The recitation is framed by an introduction and a conclusion which permit greater musical development. Although the introduction normally carries only the first two or three syllables of the text phrase, the cadence commonly takes the last five or six syllables, and both range in style from neumatic to melismatic.

The single standard melody of the 2nd mode, used for more than 50 responsories in each of the two repertories, appears in ex.2. The melody ranges from a neumatic to a melismatic style. (Late compositions frequently had more extended melismas, sometimes borrowed from other chants, but generally Office responsories were not as melismatic as responsorial Mass chants.) The structure consists of units that are themselves made up of an intonation, a recitation and a cadence. There are fundamental principles of textual adaptation identical in both repertories. A very close relation between text and music is achieved by placing the first and the last accented syllable of the text always in the same position (marked ‘x’ in ex.2) in the intonation and cadence of each pattern. The other syllables at the beginning and end of the phrase are adapted to the rest of the musical elements, some of which may be added, divided or omitted if necessary. In patterns 2 and 6 of ex.2, an element (marked ‘+’) is added in the cadence when the antepenultimate syllable is accented; in patterns 1 and 3, a cadential melisma is divided when there is such an accented syllable. Patterns 4 and 5 of ex.2, however, have musically autonomous cadences: the text is set to them without regard for the accent. The responsories using the standard melody of the 2nd mode, then, were essentially the same in both repertories. They agree in structure, text adaptation and melodic contour; moreover, their patterns are similarly ordered.

Responsory Great responsory of Matins and Vespers responsorium prolixum 3. Melodies. (ii) Structural principles.: Ex.2

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Some points of difference also emerge from ex.2. First, pattern 4 of ex.2 and the second part of the 2nd tone (see ex.1) are identical in their Gregorian versions. Since the repetendum usually begins at pattern 5, this identity must represent a conscious attempt to make a smooth return from verse to respond. No such relationship is found in the Old Roman version. This fact supports the theory of the Frankish invention of the repetendum. In the Old Roman versions, however, the end of verse and the end of respond are similar and probably point to an ancient relationship between the two. Second, the Old Roman version tends to be diffuse at the cadence; most patterns end with a melisma as a transition to the subsequent phrase. The Gregorian version is more direct at the termination, the final element usually being a clivis. Third, in recitation practice, the Gregorian version prefers the third or final modal degree, and the Old Roman the fourth or second. The Old Roman recitation, nevertheless, normally resolves to the third or final at the start of the cadence. As ex.2 shows, the first or preparatory element in Old Roman cadences (absent from Gregorian) releases the tension built up on the reciting note and at the same time introduces the cadence. Thus both chants emphasize the third and the final: the Gregorian directly, and the Old Roman, with more dramatic effect, by a recitation one tone higher.

Ex.1 shows that this latter difference applies also to the responsory tones. The Old Roman recitation occurs on the fifth and sixth in the authentic modes, and on the fourth and second in the plagal; the Gregorian chooses the fourth and the fifth in the authentic, the third and the final in the plagal. In both repertories recitation on b is avoided; the Old Roman 3rd tone, however, may be exceptional.

A comparison of all the Old Roman and Gregorian responsories of the 2nd mode, moreover, reveals that the former are built up from fewer patterns that are much more stable than the Gregorian patterns, admitting far fewer variants. Furthermore, they show that the Old Roman gives more attention to melodic continuity by adjusting the beginnings and endings of patterns for smooth transition between phrases. Hence, for the responsories of the 2nd mode Gregorian yields to Old Roman in matters of economy, stability and melodic development. Further investigation will reveal how far this is true also of responsories of the other seven modes.

4. Polyphonic settings.

  • Davitt Moroney, revised by John Caldwell

Settings of responsory texts survive from the earliest periods of polyphonic music. The Winchester Troper contains 59 responsories which cannot be transcribed accurately. Leoninus and Perotinus set many responsories in the Magnus liber, providing polyphony for the intonation of the respond and for the verse; the remaining music of the respond was to be sung in plainchant when it occurred both after the intonation and in shortened form (the repetendum) after the verse. This practice of setting soloist music to polyphony and leaving the choral music in plainchant obtained until the 16th century. The anonymous Descendit … Tamquam sponsus (possibly by Perotinus or a contemporary) is an example of a responsory set as organum triplum. Similar styles were employed in setting the responsorial chants of the Mass (gradual and alleluia); and portions of both Mass and Office responsories frequently serve as the tenors of motets in the 13th and 14th centuries.

From the time these early examples appeared until the 16th century very few responsories were set polyphonically. In England during the late 15th century, however, there developed in the Sarum Office a distinct place for polyphonic responsories, and they became a major feature of English music in the first half of the 16th century. Various responsories survive in GB-Lbl Eg.3307 (c1450), including two settings of Audivi vocem, a text set by most important English composers over the next 100 years. Numerous late 15th-century responsories also survive in GB-Cmc Pepys 1236. The Sarum responsories most frequently set are Audivi vocem (All Saints); the verse Gloria in excelsis (from Hodie nobis, a Christmas responsory); Dum transisset Sabbatum (Easter); and the two Compline responsories for Lent, In pace and In manus tuas. Apart from the latter two Compline responsories, the great majority are settings of Matins texts.

Responsories by Taverner are the first to show a reversal of the traditional roles of soloist and chorus, in that the intonation of the respond and the verse are monophonic while the remainder of the respond and the repetendum were set polyphonically, as in his Dum transisset Sabbatum. This practice became the norm for later 16th-century English settings. Not only did it in effect reintroduce a formal parallel to the plainchant responsory (the progression from solo plainchant to polyphony paralleling that from solo to choral plainchant), but it also represented a change in the nature of polyphonic singing. During the 15th century most English polyphony had been soloists’ polyphony, designed to be sung by one singer to a line. The development of choral polyphony, with more than one singer to a line, occurred later in England than on the Continent, and its effects can be seen in this change of responsorial procedure, and in the style of choral polyphony, which is noticeably different from that of soloists’ polyphony. Nevertheless, smaller responsories, notably the two Compline texts, continued to be set in the old manner: of Sheppard’s three settings of In manus tuas, one uses only the intonation and verse.

The most magnificent responsory from this period is Sheppard’s Gaude gaude gaude Maria virgo (second Vespers of the Purification). It includes the long prosa Inviolata et integra set in alternatim style; it is the only surviving example of such a prosa set in its responsorial context, although Frye and Taverner had previously set the prosa Sospitati dedit egros for performance within the plainchant responsory Ex eius tumba for St Nicholas. The manner in which Sheppard devised alternative cadences for the repeated sections of the responsory itself, and the clear tonal structure of the whole, help make this an unsurpassed example of tonal and thematic architecture in music of this period. Sheppard’s work may have been composed during the Sarum revival of Queen Mary’s reign (1553–8). Many of the responsories of Tallis and Sheppard (which seem to fit together into a more or less complete liturgical cycle) probably date from this revival (but Doe argued against this, 1970).

Although it was normal for the plainchant to be laid out in equal note values in the tenor, one exception is Byrd’s Libera me, the last of his contributions to his and Tallis’s Cantiones sacrae of 1575. By this date the Sarum rite had been finally abolished (in 1559), and it is not surprising to find that his few responsories show little liturgical propriety. Although Libera me maintains the internal cadences typical of earlier settings (necessary before the point where the repetendum begins), the intonation is nevertheless incorporated into the main body of the polyphony. The independent responsory motet was thereby created in a different manner from its already current continental counterpart. This responsory motet form was commonly adopted by English composers in the remainder of Elizabeth’s reign, the most notable example being Tallis’s great 40-voice Spem in alium, probably dating from the 1570s.

On the Continent the history of polyphonic responsories was quite distinct, more complex and less liturgically orientated. Interestingly, one of the earliest full settings was by the Englishman Walter Frye, although this work is unrelated to English liturgical practice. Frye’s Ave regina celorum, mater Regis angelorum (one of the most famous pieces of the late 15th century) sets the complete text of the antiphon (LU, 1864), but includes a repetition of lines 3 and 4 at the end. The result is in fact not an antiphon, but a responsory formerly sung in continental liturgies at Compline (from Candlemas to Maundy Thursday). His music sets the whole text in polyphony (intonation, respond, verse and repetendum) without recourse to a plainchant cantus firmus, a practice that became standard on the Continent from that time onwards. The resulting aBcB motet form also became a prototype for longer motets in general, especially in the later 16th century, regardless of whether the texts were in fact responsories.

Ockeghem’s Gaude Maria is an aBcB responsory with cantus firmus in the tenor. Obrecht’s Ave regina is based on Frye’s tenor, transposed from F (major) to D (minor), and consequently preserves its plan. During the Reformation and the Council of Trent, numerous examples of aBcB motets are found among the works of most major composers, notably Clemens non Papa. Not all of these pieces can be identified as having normal liturgical responsory texts. The structural repetition inherent in the form seems to have been attractive for purely musical reasons, and many of the ‘manufactured’ motet texts of these years are shaped into responsory form without any liturgical necessity. In such instances, as well as in many later compositions, the cB element of the form is identified as the secunda pars of the work.

Perhaps the most important set of responsories in the 16th century was Kerle’s Preces speciales, sung at the Council of Trent in 1562 (the year when the future of complex polyphonic Catholic church music was under strong debate). These extraordinary pieces are all based on newly written non-liturgical texts in the form of large responsories. This shows that Kerle, at least, was well aware of the structural value of responsory form in longer movements; he treated the basic repetition formulae with great freedom and imagination. Many of Palestrina’s and Victoria’s larger motets in two partes are based on liturgical responsory texts: these include Palestrina’s famous six-part Tu es Petrus, Tribulationes civitatum, Sancta et immaculata and Dum complerentur. The aBcB form is found also in many shorter motets in one section, notably by Palestrina and Monte.

The period 1550–1650 saw the publication of many complete sets of responsories in Italy, either for Christmas or, much more frequently, for the 27 responsories of Holy Week’s Tenebrae services (Matins of the Thursday, Friday and Saturday, which were at that time sung in the increasing darkness and ‘shadows’ of the previous evenings; thus many sets are described as being for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, although liturgically they are indeed for the triduum sacrum). The earliest published set of Tenebrae responsories is that of Paolo Animuccia, probably published around 1555. Over the next 100 years, nearly 100 sets of Holy Week responsories were published, almost entirely by very minor Italian figures: Giovanni Alcarotto, Ruggerio Argilliano, Michele Falusi, Manuel Cardoso, Girolamo Bartei and many others. The three most famous sets are those of Ingegneri (1588), which were assumed for centuries to be by Palestrina (who seems not to have set the texts), Gesualdo (1611), set in a considerably more restrained and refined style than his madrigals, and Victoria’s justly admired set (1585), which has never been equalled for concision, liturgical propriety and sombre intensity. Victoria was one of the few composers to set only 18 of the complete 27 Tenebrae responsories, those for the second and third Nocturns of each day; in this way he achieved a balance of polyphonic activity in each Nocturn, since in the first Nocturn it was the Lamentations that were set. Other composers occasionally set only the first Nocturn, but most set all three. Most settings are in the unaccompanied manner associated with the Cappella Sistina, although several were published with organ part. Some even state on their title-page that they are ‘alla Palestrina’. Short responsories were also frequently included in polyphonic Compline publications in the second half of the 16th century and throughout the 17th.

Among 18th-century sets of Tenebrae responsories are those by Alessandro Scarlatti (1708), Pompeo Cannicciari (1709), Giovanni Bononcini (c1730), Nicolò Jommelli (c1740), Leonardo Leo (c1740) and Michael Haydn (c1774–1796). Some survive only in manuscript and were virtually the exclusive property of the Capella Sistina choir.

Other responsories frequently set include those following the Mass for the Dead. These have a polyphonic history as old as polyphony itself, and such responsories (especially the Libera me for the Absolution) continued to be set during the 18th and 19th centuries in complete settings of the Requiem Mass. Neither responsories nor indeed liturgical Office music in general have exerted much attraction over leading composers of the last 100 years. Furthermore, the gradual abolition of Tenebrae during the 1950s, and the final restructuring of the whole Catholic liturgy from 1970 onwards, have left little place for such music and little incentive for its composition.


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Musicological Studies and Documents
Music & Letters
Revue musicale
F.Ll. Harrison: Music in Medieval Britain (London, 1958, 4/1980)
Etudes grégoriennes
Corpus antiphonalium officii (Rome, 1963-79)
Journal of the American Musicological Society
Papers of the American Musicological Society
Musical Quarterly
Rome, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana
Cambridge, Magdalene College, Pepys Library
Journal of Musicology
Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association
G. Reese: Music in the Renaissance (New York, 1954, 2/1959)
Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart
London, British Library
Acta musicologica
W.H. Frere, ed.: Antiphonale sarisburiense (London, 1901-25/R)
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