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Music of Vespers

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The texts (e.g. antiphons, psalms, hymn) sung in Vespers vary according to the feast or the season of the church year; and in churches where it is obligatory to recite publicly the Canonical Hours of the Divine Office the Vespers must follow the direction of the "Ordo". The Second Plenary Council of Baltimore (1868) decreed (no. 379) that complete vespers be sung on Sundays and feasts in all churches, as far as possible, after the Roman fashion, and that vespers never be replaced by other exercises of piety; "for the solemn worship approved by bishops of the Church and flourishing through so many centuries must be deemed pleasing to Almighty God". To facilitate the introduction of Vespers, the council further legislated (no. 380) that the rudiments of Gregorian chant be taught in parish schools, "so that gradually the greater part of the congregation might be enabled to join with the sacred ministers and the choir" in singing. A Rescript of the Congregation of Sacred Rites (11 Mar., 1882, Montereyen. et Angelor. n. 3539, 3) declared that the custom which had obtained in certain churches, of singing some verses of all or of some psalms in Vespers and of omitting the others, should be wholly eliminated; and two years later the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884) decreed (no. 118): "Moreover we will and command . . . that, where the office of Vespers is performed, complete Vespers, that is, with integral psalms, be sung."

The difficulty of preparing different antiphons, psalms, etc., for the various Sundays and feasts overtaxed the powers of ordinary choirs; and happily a decree of the S.R.C. (29 Dec., 1884, Lucionen. n. 3624, 12) met the difficulty by declaring that in mere parish churches, where there is no obligation of public recitation of the Divine Office, but where Vespers are sung for the devotion of the people, the Vespers may be taken from any Office, such as that of the Most Blessed Sacrament or of the Blessed Virgin, provided that the sacred ministers privately recite the Vespers proper to the day. It is therefore clear that in practically all churches in English-speaking countries the choir may repeat the same Vespers, selected from any appropriate feast, for every Sunday or feast. Composers and publishers of church music have further simplified the task of the choir by issuing brochures which contain all the ceremonial or rubrical directions in English, in their appropriate place, and which give easy musical settings to the antiphons, psalms, etc., or furnish easy accompaniments to the plainsong melodies. Must the Vespers thus selected at the pleasure of the priest or the choirmaster be complete in every part, e.g., the antiphons? Johner (p. 14) declares that "such Vespers must accord in every respect with the Vespers of the Office selected". The Provincial Council of Milwaukee follows the Fourth Provincial Council of Cincinnati in the desire that "in vespers on Sundays the antiphons, the entire five psalms, and the hymn proper to the occurring feast should never be omitted, unless the bishop deems it impossible to observe this rule on account of local circumstances". In this connection, the discussion in the "Ecclesiastical Review" (Dec., 1911) should be consulted.

The texts must be either sung or "recited" in a clear and intelligible manner. The portions that must be sung are: the first verse of the "Magnificat", the first and last verse of the hymn, the verses where genuflection is prescribed (e.g. "Veni Creator", "O Crux Ave" on the Feasts of the Holy Cross, "Ave Maris Stella") or where all bow the head (e.g. the "Gloria Patri"). The "Ceremonial of Bishops" permits alternate verses of the "Magnificat" to be supplied by the organ, provided the choir meanwhile recites the text in an intelligible voice or--a better arrangement--a single chanter sings the text to accompaniment of the organ. The S.R.C. (Senogallien., 4 Mar., 1901, V) permits a similar arrangement for the psalms, but adds the condition that there be a poverty of voices (e.g. one or two voices on each side of the choir, as the Ephemerid. liturg., XV, 353, interprets). The "Ceremonial of Bishops" forbids the playing of the organ on Sundays of Lent and Advent, except Gaudete and Lætare Sundays (the third of Advent and the fourth of Lent); but a Rescript of the S.R.C. (11 May, 1911) permits the organ to be played when it is necessary for sustaining the voices, provided it ceases when the voices cease. The S.R.C. (Senogallien., 4 Mar., 1901, VII) requires a pause to be made at the asterisk in each verse of the psalms, "any custom whatsoever to the contrary notwithstanding".

The general musical character of vespers is indicated in the "Instruction on Sacred Music" issued by Pius X (22 Nov., 1903), no. IV, 11. Classical polyphony or modern music may be used, although the Gregorian chant is the typical setting for the texts. While the antiphons should regularly be in the assigned Gregorian melodies, it is permitted occasionally to sing them in figured music; but in this case "they must never have either the form of a concert melody or the fullness of a motet or cantata". While the "Gloria Patri" and "Sicut erat" may also be in figured music, the psalms should regularly be in Gregorian chant; but on greater feasts the verses in Gregorian chant may be alternated with verses in falsibordoni or "with verses similarly composed in a proper manner". Single psalms may sometimes be sung wholly in modern music, "provided the form proper to psalmody be preserved in such compositions; that is, provided the singers seem to be psalmodizing among themselves, either with new motifs, or with those taken from the Gregorian chant or based upon it". The "Instruction" immediately adds that "psalms known as di concerto are, therefore, forever excluded and prohibited". These di concerto psalms are "theatrical compositions . .  with soli, chorus, and orchestra, comprising adagios, allegros, and often dance airs" (Duclos, 106, footnote 2). Pius X alludes to these in his letter to Card. Respighi (8 Dec., 1903): "For the devout psalmody of the clergy, in which the people also used to join, there have been substituted interminable musical compositions on the words of the Psalms, all of them modelled on old theatrical works, and most of them of such meagre artistic value that they would not be tolerated for a moment even in second-rate concerts. Certain it is that Christian piety and devotion are not promoted by them; the curiosity of some of the less intelligent is fed, but the majority, disgusted and scandalized, wonder how it is that such an abuse can still survive. We, therefore, wish the cause to be completely extirpated, and that the solemnity of vespers should be celebrated according to the liturgical rules indicated by us." As to the hymn, the "Ceremonial of Bishops" permits recitation of alternate stanzas with accompaniment of organ.


JOHNER, New School of Gregorian Chant (New York, 1906), 9-14; BENEDICTINES OF STANBROOK, Grammar of Plainsong (London, 1905), 68-9; POTHIER, Les mélodies grégoriennes (Tournai, 1880), 240-68; TERRY, Catholic Church Music (London, 1907), 21-38 (Church legislation), 125-6 (Order of Vespers), 128 (Pontifical Vespers), 136 (Vespers of the Dead); DUCLOS, Sa sainteté Pie X et la réforme de la musique religieuse (Rome, 1905), 105-7; FINN, WELLS, and O'BRIEN, Manual of Church Music (Philadelphia, 1905), 90-4, 134-5; JOHNER, Die Psalmodie nach der Vaticana (Ratisbon, 1911); Ecclesiastical Rev., Feb., 1904, 184-8 (Letter of Pius X to Card. Respighi): "There is much to be corrected or removed in the chants of the Mass . . . but that which needs a thorough renewal is the singing of Vespers of the feasts celebrated in the different churches and basilicas. The liturgical prescriptions of the 'Cæremoniale episcoporum', and the beautiful musical traditions of the classical Roman school, are no longer to be found. . . . And do you, Lord Cardinal, neither grant indulgences nor concede delays. The difficulty is not diminished but rather augmented by postponement, and since the thing is to be done, let it be done immediately and resolutely. . . . The Vesper service will, indeed, be notably shortened. But if the rectors of the churches desire on a special occasion to prolong the function somewhat . . . [they may] have a suitable sermon after the vespers, closed with Solemn Benediction of the Most Holy Sacrament"; LEMAISTRE, Vatican Chant (New York, 1905), 69-95; BENEDICTINES OF SOLESMES, Rules for Psalmody (Rome, 1904), no. 598, English ed.; IDEM, Psalmi in notis pro vesperis et officiis in omnibus dominicis et festis duplicibus (Rome, 1909), no. 590, gives the texts in full under each of the eight psalm tones in notation; PIÉRARD, Psautier-vespéral, séméiographie nouvelle (Rome, 1908); BONVIN, On Recitation in Church Music (March, 1906, 145-56).

About this page

APA citation. Henry, H. (1912). Music of Vespers. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Henry, Hugh. "Music of Vespers." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Elizabeth T. Knuth. In honor of Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, O.S.B.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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