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Responsory, or Respond, a series of verses and responses, usually taken from Holy Scripture and varying according to the feast or season. Responsories are of two kinds: those which occur in the Proper of the Mass, and those used in the Divine Office; each differing slightly both as to history and form.

The responsories of the mass

The psalmodic solo is the oldest form of Christian chant, and was apparently derived from the Synagogue. The psalm was recited by one chanter, to whom the people answered with a refrain or response, the latter being either the alternate verses of the psalm itself, or one verse repeated again and again, or sometimes a sentence taken from elsewhere. The psalm "Confitemini Domino", every verse of which has the refrain "Quoniam in aeternum misericordia ejus", is a typical example, though sometimes the refrain was a mere exclamation, such as "Alleluia". This method of chant was known as the cantus responsorius, and is mentioned in the writings of Tertullian, St. Augustine, and St. Isidore. It was an integral part of the Liturgy, that is to say it was not introduced to fill up time whilst other things were going on, but was listened to by clergy and people alike, and in this it differs from the antiphonal chant, which was merely an accompaniment to various actions and ceremonies, e.g. the Introit, Offertory, and Communion. The responsorial parts of the Mass were the Gradual (so named from the position of the soloist, at the steps of the pulpit or ambo), the Alleluia, and at one time the Offertory. Up to the twelfth century the way of singing the Gradual was as follows: The cantor sang it from the beginning as far as the verse, and the choir repeated the cantor's part. Then came the verse, sung by the cantor, after which the refrain, i.e. the part first sung, was repeated by all. After the twelfth century the custom began of omitting the repetition after the verse whenever another chant, such as the Alleluia or Tract, followed. The present practice is to omit the repetition on all occasions, but in order to avoid a conclusion by the soloist alone, it has become general for the choir to join in at the end of the verse. In the early Middle Ages the responsorium graduale was still sung at every Mass, and not replaced, as at present, by an Alleluia in Eastertide. It may be noted that it is still retained in Easter Week, the Graduals of which are all connected (the refrain being the same and the verses being all from one psalm), and doubtless originally formed one chant with several verses, which was performed in full on Easter Day.

The second piece of responsorial chant in the Mass is the Alleluia. It was introduced by Pope Damasus at the advice of St. Jerome, in imitation of the Liturgy of Jerusalem. The chant became very elaborate, the greater part of it being devoted to the last vowel of the word alleluia, which was prolonged through so many successive notes as to suggest a mystical meaning, viz., that it represented the chant of eternity, or, as Durandus says, the joy that is too great to be expressed in words. The reduction of this chant to responsorial form is due to St. Gregory, who added verses to it. The method of singing it was as follows: The soloist began with the Alleluia, which was repeated by the choir; the soloist then continued with the verse or verses, after each of which the choir repeated the Alleluia. On Holy Saturday and the Vigil of Pentecost, there was no repetition, but the verse "Confitemini" was followed immediately (as now) by the tract "Laudate Dominum". The Offertory was originally an antiphonal chant, i.e. sung by two choirs, introduced to fill up the time whilst the oblations of the people were being made. Later on it became more convenient to leave the Verses to a soloist, and so it became a responsorial chant. One reason for this may have been that the singers, as well as the people, had oblations to offer. The change was naturally accompanied by an elaboration of the melody, both of the antiphon (which became the refrain) and of the verses. But when the popular offering fell out of use, the Offertory had to be curtailed, and the verses were dropped, in which form it is found as early as the eleventh century. At the present day the Mass for the Dead alone retains a vestige of the ancient usage, in the verse "Hostias et preces" and the repetition after it of the concluding part of the Offertory. Originally the people joined in the singing of all the Mass responsorial chants, taking up the responses after they had been commenced by the soloist. The gradual elaboration of the melodies, however, made this increasingly difficult for them, and so by degrees they were forced to relinquish their share to the trained singers of the choir. They had become thus silenced probably by St. Gregory's time, and thenceforward it was only in the Ordinary of the Mass that they were able to take their share.

The responsories of the divine office

These consist, like those of the Mass, of verses and responses, with or without the "Gloria Patri" (but omitting sicut erat), and their usual place is after the Lessons of Matins. There is also a shorter form, called the responsorium breve or responsoriola, which in the monastic Office always comes after the Capitulum at Lauds and Vespers, and also after the Lesson in summer ferial Matins (Reg. S. Ben., c. x). In the Roman Office it is found only in the Little Hours. St. Benedict in his Rule (written about 530) prescribes the use of responsories after the Lessons of Matins, but he gives no intimation as to their form, implying rather that they were in general use and therefore well-known. The earliest definite information we have as to their form is found in the description of the Roman Office at the beginning of the ninth century, given by Amalarius in his "De Ordine Antiphonarii" (Migne, P.L., CV). The method of chanting then in vogue is thus given by him: the precentor began with the first part, which the choir repeated; then the soloist sang the verse, and the choir repeated the first part again as far as the verse; the soloist sang "Gloria Patri" and the choir repeated the second portion of its part again; finally the precentor began the Respond again from the beginning, and sang it as far as the verse, and the choir replied with a last repetition. The first Responsory of the year, "Aspiciens a longe", and a few others, had several verses, and in these cases the second part of the refrain was divided into as many sections as there were verses, one section being repeated after each verse, and then after the "Gloria Patri" the full refrain again. One verse only, however, was the general rule.

A modification of the above method was introduced by the Franks, who repeated only the first part of the refrain after the verse instead of the whole of it. This dimidiation in the Gallican method of singing the Responsory led to some confusion of the sense of what was being sung, and Blessed Cardinal Tommasi, quoting from Amalarius, says that in consequence it became necessary to introduce some different verses in Gaul, so that there might be but one sense running through the words of both Respond and verse. Dom Bäumer gives the following as an example:

R. Tu es Petrus *ait Dominus ad Simonem.
V. Ecce Sacerdos magnus qui in diebus suis placuit Deo.
R. (Roman method) Tu es Petrus, etc.

But according to the Gallican method the repetition would be merely "Ait Dominus", etc., thus making Our Lord to say to Peter "Ecce Sacerdos magnus" etc.

Helisachar, Abbot of St. Maximin at Trier, was responsible for many of the new Verses, but his work did not meet with the approval of Amalarius, who set himself to improve upon it in the new Antiphonary which he compiled for use in Gaul. This in turn was violently attacked by Agobard and Florus, the liturgists of Lyons, but in the end the Gallican method of singing the Responsory prevailed over the Roman way, and became the general custom of the Church. This came about, however, only by degrees, for though Amalarius made his compilation early in the ninth century, we still find considerable variation of form in the Responsories contained in the twelfth-century Antiphonary of St. Peter's, which represents the use of the Vatican Basilica. The inclusion of the "Gloria Patri" in the Responsory was considered by Amalarius to be a recent innovation, though Walafrid Strabo ascribed its introduction to St. Benedict. At any rate its use without "sicut erat" points to its being at least older than the sixth century. It should be noted that usually it occurs only in the last of each set of nocturn Responds.

The number of Responsories used varied in the different Antiphonaries according to the number of lessons. Before the Te Deum was said at the end of Matins, extra Responsories were sometimes added on feast days, one after another, as a token of joy and solemnity. Numerous examples occur, for instance, in the Compiegne Antiphonary (Migne, P.L., LXXVIII), which was compiled in the ninth century, apparently for the use of non-monastic churches in the north of France. The preservation of the repetition in the Office Responsory, unlike that of the Mass, may perhaps be accounted for by the fact that the office chant was always in the hands of clerics or monks, rather than of professional singers; the latter would naturally apply themselves chiefly to the melodic development of the pieces entrusted to them, whereas the former would be more liturgically conservative and more careful of the organic structure of their pieces.

The words of the Responsories agreed either with the history in the Lessons they followed, or were proper to the feast of the day. Thus in the "Micrologus" of Bernold of Constance, the Responsories themselves are often called "Historia". Amalarius speaks of Responsories de historia being used after Lessons from the Old Testament, and de psalmis after those from the New. The practice of using a Responsory from the Common of Saints with a Lesson of the current Scripture has sometimes an awkward effect. Thus the French ritualist Grancolas, who flourished in the early eighteenth century, remarks that the intention of the Responsory was to furnish a meditation or commentary on what had just been read, but that such intention was frustrated when, for instance, after a Lesson describing the doings of "Absalom, Ahab, or some other wicked prince" the answer was "Ecce Sacerdos magnus", or "Sponsabo te mihi in justitia". The Paris Breviary of 1735, introduced by Archbishop de Vintimille on his own authority, in which everything except hymns and lives of saints was rigidly Scriptural, has a series of Responsories which, considered as "moral concordances", are really works of art. The Old and New Testaments are made mutually illustrative in a masterly manner; thus, for example, on the feast of Our Lady's Conception we have:

R. Descendit sicut pluvia in vellus; *Benedictum nomen majestatis ejus in aeternum, et *Replebitur majestate ejus omnis terra.
V. Ecce tabernaculum Dei cum hominibus et habitabit cum eis; et ipse Deus cum eis erit eorum Deus.
R. Benedictum.
V. Gloria Patri.
R. Replebitur.

The Graduals and Responsories are certainly among the most ancient and interesting parts of the liturgy of the Church. Musically they are the highest achievement of the old Christian composers, and should always be referred to when it is desired to give specimens of the true Gregorian Chant; whilst as literature, Battifol, speaking of the responds of the "Proprium de Tempore", which are older than the others, compares them to the chorus dialogues of classical Greek tragedy.


MARTENE, De Antiquis Ecclesiae Ritibus (Rouen, 1700); GRANCOLAS, Commentaire historique sur le Breviaire romain (Paris, 1727); THOMASSIN, Vetus et Nova Ecclesiae Disciplina (Venice, 1766); PROBST, Brevier und Breviergebet (Tübingen, 1868); BATTIFOL, Histoire du Breviaire romain (Paris, 1893); tr. BAYLEY (London, 1898); BAUMER, Gesch. des Breviers; tr. BIRON (Paris, 1905); further information may also be found in AMALARIUS, De Ordine Antiphonarii, in MIGNE, P.L., CV (Paris, 1864); TOMMASI, preface to Responsorialia et Antiphonaria Romanae Ecclesiae (Rome, 1636); and in the Dictionnaire d'Archeologie chretienne et de la Liturgie, ed. CABROL (Paris), s.v. Amalaire, Agobard, Antiphonaire, Antienne, etc.

About this page

APA citation. Alston, G.C. (1911). Responsorium. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Alston, George Cyprian. "Responsorium." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Herman F. Holbrook. Ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus per Iesum Christum.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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