Once Again: Antiphons or Hymns?

Holy Day Mass for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the abbey yesterday, bookended by the two alternatives we often talk about:

  • Entrance antiphon in the lovely English chant setting of Richard Rice. Congregation sang the free-rhythm antiphon “A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun,” cantors sang the beautiful through-composed Mode 7 chant verses, all with simple organ accompaniment. (I took the liberty of adding in slurs to make the text underlay clearer for the singers.)
  • Closing hymn: “Hail, Holy Queen Enthroned Above.” No further comment needed to explain this one. Although – I looked up and saw two young people giggling when this began, and I wondered whether they knew this piece from Whoopee Goldberg and not from church-going, and thought it funny that we were doing a piece from a famous movie. Maybe not, who knows.

The people really sang on the closing hymn, and seemed to enjoy a rousing rendition of an old favorite. Opening antiphon, not so much. Oh, it was OK – but only really strong by the final antiphon (after one psalm verse and one vernacular Gloria Patri verse), and even then more sound from the monks’ side of the choir than the guests’ side.

I found opening antiphon beautiful – contemplative, alluring, evocative, reverent, “monastic.” But still, my first thought was that it didn’t work because some of the lay people seemed uninvolved, or unmoved, or perhaps bored.

My second thought was this: not so fast. Should we assume that seemingly less external engagement is an accurate reflection of people’s inner state? Does deep, contemplative participation maybe look “uninvolved” to the superficial observer? Should we liturgical planners be less insecure, less worried about instant results, and more trusting that the beauty of the liturgy speaks to people?

My third thought was more political. “Fr. Nick will love this,” I thought to myself. “But Fr. X probably dislikes it and thinks our traditionalism is shutting people out.”

And on cue, Fr. Nick said to me in the refectory at supper: “Thanks – the antiphons at Mass were really beautiful!” (There was also a communion antiphon, a metered setting, and of course a Responsorial Psalm which in this case was a simple chant setting composed by me.) But Fr. X said nothing to me – either because his opinion wasn’t what I thought it was or, more likely, the monks who dislike something are slightly less likely to speak up right away.

So then: thanks to Fr. Nick for the feedback, and thanks especially to Fr. X for his!

What do you think? How do you think about antiphons, hymns, and response they seemingly elicit from worshipers?

Do check out Richard Rice’s antiphons – they’re wonderful.



  1. There is no faster or more effective means of silencing a typical parish congregation than to take away hymns/songs and replace them with chanted propers. This is a quick route to hearing just the voice of the cantor and/or choir singing at Mass, perhaps joined by a handful of congregants hesitantly trying to go along with it.

    1. That’s a bit unfair, considering that it is perfectly permitted for a choir to sing the propers by themselves. They are not taking anything away from the congregation – they are just singing stuff that need not be congregational anyway.

      1. For that matter, Mass is just as valid with no congregation present. Just a few vested ministers in the sanctuary and a robed choir in the loft without a pesky congregation to cough and bang the kneelers. Heaven on earth?

      2. GIRM 48 says that the fourth-choice option is “a suitable liturgical song similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the diocesan Bishop.” The first option is the antiphon from the Roman Missal or Graduale Romanum, which by necessity must be sung by the choir. What happens at most parishes is the 3rd-choice option, a song from an approved collection. Todd, I think what you must be talking about is when it mentions the three possibilities for who does it: cantor/people alternation, all people, or choir alone. What evidence is there that those are tiered options, rather than simply a list? The one passage that would seem to preclude a choral-only recitation is when it says that the congregation should be involved as much as is possible. That is why composers like Richard Rice, Adam Bartlett and Fr. Columba Kelly provide congregational antiphons, which then transforms the method into the first possibility of alternation. Then you have a continuation of the inspired tradition using the proper texts, with a measure of creativity to get the congregation involved. Bravo to them.

  2. Well, I cannot speak to the cultural background for Latino Catholics and Asian Catholics in the USA. With that enormous carve-out, I would say that the Catholicism of European immigrants to the USA assimilated in varying degrees the vigorous hymn-singing cultures of English-speaking and Germanic Protestant denominations that long dominated American church culture.* (Whether this assimilation showed up at Mass vs devotions is a tangent we need not go into here, except to note that the effective suppression of lavish devotions may have resulted in placing burdens on the Mass, shall we say.) Hence I am somewhat skeptical about entirely displacing hymnody from the Mass with the propers (but I do think they can coexist much better than either poles on that issue fear, without having what has been called a “stuffed” Mass – propers should not be alien to Catholic congregations) – it would help to have much better ordinaries than most congregations are given.

    * There’s a reason why hymn singing featured on the deck of the HMS Prince of Wales in August 1941, and at the end of Mrs Miniver, and myriad other examples in history and popular culture.

  3. What do the documents say? Music In Catholic Worship (60, 61, 62) and Liturgical Music Today (18, 19) give clear guidelines. The GIRM (47, 48). All of this is reiterated in Sing to the Lord (144, 189-194). I am appalled at number of parish music directors (and clergy) who have little if any knowledge of these documents. On a practical basis, in the Year of Our Lord, 2017, I don’t think the antiphons will work for the entrance. Most parishes have been singing a metrical hymn (1 or two stanzas, often not the entire hymn) for the last two generations. When I worked in a parish full time, I always tried to use the antiphons during Communion, and am happy to substitute in two parishes that do this. As the people have become accustomed to this, participation increases. But it is not yet as good as it often is on many of the more contemporary religious songs in refrain/verse style.

  4. I’d like to point out that antiphons and verses were the staple of many composers from the 70s onward. I lament that the major publishers encouraged Foley, Schutte, Haugen, etc, into the hymn structures of the preconciliar Low Mass or Protestant worship. That said, “Hail Holy Queen” was sung with gusto, as was our other choice of hymn, “Sing Of Mary” which touches a bit more into christology. We used an antiphonal setting of the Magnificat for Communion. More gusto, even on the verses.

    All that said, while I like the Rev 12 antiphon in the Missal, and Psalm 98 isn’t a bad match, I wonder if something like the canticle in Revelation 7 wouldn’t be a better choice. On the other hand, how often would you use something like that in a parish’s repertoire? A Magnificat I’d program almost anytime. The main drawback of the Roman Missal Antiphonary is tunnel vision on antiphons and choices of psalms to the exclusion of much of the Scriptures, Old and New Testaments.

    A side note: I’m more of a fan of HHQ for next Tuesday than this. A parishioner (late 30s) and I were discussing this hymn and his association with Sister Act. I think those snickers in the assembly were more about the Q in LGBTQ than an old fogie movie from the distant 90s. We both agreed a good hymn text for Assumption was needed.

  5. I notice in my parish community it often takes the congregation a while to find its voice in the entrance song. Most of the music sung is antiphon and verse material with a mixture of traditional and contemporary. Recently, it wasn’t until the third verse of “All creatures of our God and King” that could I really hear the congregation singing well. There is something to be said for singing enough of a hymn for people to find their voice. Our musicians are encouraged to sing all verses of the entrance song so as to give time for myself as presider to establish my place at the chair, to join in the singing, and to cover the late arrivals (its amazing how full our church is by 10 minutes past the hour!) I think #47 in the G.I.R.M. puts it rather well when describing the Entrance Chant – its purpose is to open the celebration, foster the unity of those gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery and lastly, to accompany the parade. More often than not, it takes a while to foster that desired unity.

  6. “Should we liturgical planners be less insecure, less worried about instant results, and more trusting that the beauty of the liturgy speaks to people?”

    Yes, yes, and yes. Things like this need time to take hold, and besides, our perceptions can be askew. In the case of Assumption – how many good Assumption hymns are there? I won’t pretend it’s always the case, but in this instance the propers are much more strongly related to the Mass than any hymn would be. We started our school Mass with Fr. Columba’s “Let us all rejoice…” The text even indicates the entire community actively engaging in the words that the choir sings. What better start to the Mass could there be?

  7. It depends on how the singing of antiphon and psalm is executed. Some collections of English propers, like those of Fr. Columba Kelly or Adam Bartlett, provide for short congregational refrains which might make it easier for the congregation to join in.
    It’s also true that an antiphon is sometimes better suited for the liturgy than a hymn. On August 6 I acted as cantor in our cathedral and though the DM advised me to pick a hymn because of his concern for congregational participation, I couldn’t find any that was fit for the feast of the Transfiguration. I therefore choose an antiphon from my own Klein Graduale, which referred directly to the Transfiguration (Mt 17:1-2). This antiphon was first sung by me in its entirety. After that, because of the length of the antiphon, I selected the last phrase of the antiphon as a short refrain, which was repeated between each psalm verse: “He was transfigured before them”. It was an apt refrain and worked quite well. It was short enough to be picked up quickly by the congregation and there was a sufficient number of psalm verses to have the congregation sing it eventually with confidence.

  8. I’m a congregant whose home parish music director ignores the antiphons completely, and focuses on the song repertoire he has built for generations. But I’m also a convert, and I’ve attended my share of interdenominational worship services. And the songs (at least, back then)–many of them I would classify as “instantly learnable”, that is, overly repetitious, or an echo song, sung simply, in a contemporary style but retaining a tone that respects the text.

    I am curious as to whether it is possible to take some of the elements of the Roman Gradual, and crafting such melodies so that they are “instantly learnable” for the congregation, but being antiphon texts (changing weekly), they will not outplay their welcome. This is different from chant, different from hymns, but a fusion between songs reflecting that “beauty so ancient” and songs reflecting “and yet so new.”

    1. Check out Christoph Tietze’s “Communion Antiphons for the Easter Season” from WLP. Common melody but the texts change for each week. Used this with great success in my last parish. Unison with optional S/T descant for the refrain.

  9. I do think monasteries and parishes are very different beasts here. I’ve always appreciated Benedictine hospitality, which I’ve been blessed to often experience, but I don’t think the deepest form of welcome is to make things less ‘monkish’ so as we sing more. I was recently at a monastery that didn’t want guests to sing at all and, while I respected that, I suspect I won’t be back again. But, I go to a monastery for to experience worship as it nourishes the monks, and if that means that the music is unfamiliar and I end up choosing to remain silent rather than sight-reading something that would be taxing for me occasionally, that’s not a bad thing.

  10. I have nothing against hymns, but I think we need to get to a place culturally where we do not feel always and everywhere COMPELLED to use them. There is currently a tyranny of hymnody in our common practice that does not allow us to explore other creative options (especially for the entrance, offertory, and communion processions). That is unfortunate, given that there are many legitimate approaches for this music.

    It’s also important to remember that we cannot judge the external participation or non-participation of a congregation based solely on one component part of the Mass (I’m not sure that we ever can, or should, try to judge their internal participation). If the choir happened to sing an entrance antiphon or polyphonic proper, followed by congregational responses at the greeting, congregational kyrie, and congregational Gloria, I would see that as an introductory rite filled with an ample amount of congregational singing. We have to keep in mind the liturgy as a whole, especially when a choir is present.

    1. Agreed. I would suggest that people more actively experiment with using the more of the legitimate options provided for, and more frequently in a deliberate way. If it’s strange for Catholics in the pews to encounter a chanted introit proper, or a polyphonic setting of the offertory, for example, that’s a sign Catholics have been kept alienated from their birthright heritage. That’s unnecessary, and I don’t think it’s good. (It is, however, convenient.) That doesn’t require us to ditch the appearance of hymnody where we’re used to encountering it. Rather, it’s about expanding what we are used to encountering.

      1. I get a bit nervous when I hear talk about “birthright.” Pastors have a responsibility to assembly competent leadership in music, the best afforded by resources at hand. As Americans, we are about as far removed from early Tridentine practice as 4th century Rome was from the Cenacle. None of that is meant to belittle musical tradition, even non-European offerings) but to put things in perspective. Many disengaged Catholics would not see “classical” music as a right. And in places where the execution of music was poor, it would be borne as a cross.

        There is no tyranny here. Just missed opportunities.

      2. Todd

        An enlarged perspective can make room for the birthright. No need to be nervous about it. That nervousness is part of the problem; it does not feed a good cycle. (For one thing, I can assure you there are disengaged Catholics who would be thrilled to have that enlarged perspective used as I suggest. Not all of them. But perhaps more than you may imagine. As for poor execution, there’s no idiom that’s invulnerable to that, and part of the solution for that problem is more experience, not less.)

  11. About poor execution.
    I am firmly of the belief that materials should be chosen to fit the skills of those concerned. Better to say something than have it so badly sung that it becomes an impediment to worship.
    How is God glorified or how are the listeners inspired by the results of either musicians who are deaf to their deficiencies, or a slavish adherence to one particular interpretation of rubrics to fit a particular predisposition no matter what the musical outcome?

  12. Lovely and succinct summary of two very different types of liturgical music and how they function. I’m reminded of Mary Collin’s work on contemplative participation – we do participate (fully, consciously, etc) in many different ways, it does not always have to be all saying/singing all words all together all the time. I was reminded of how much stronger a hymn is when it is one of very few in a liturgy at first Evensong for the feast of the Assumption at Westminster Abbey. When we finally got to a congregational hymn, it was sung with great gusto and joy – if it had been #5 of 5 it might not have felt like that. Hymns also do not often fit in a eucharistic liturgy – they can bring the liturgy to a halt while making our way through 5 verses, when only a simple alleluia was needed, or other ritual music.

  13. We have used refrain Entrance Antiphons fairly consistently for the past several years, initially Rice but more recently those of Columba Kelly. Recently we have started using refrain setting of the Communion Antiphon as well. Over the years I have seen a steady increase in the volume “down below” for these antiphons. Personally, I have found the Rice antiphons more successful when the through composed verses are replaced with a simpler Psalm tone since that increases the number of times the congregation sings the refrain. All that to say, consistency and persistence can gradually make a difference.

  14. I think we are confusing two different things here:

    Antiphons and psalms which sound like chant — Antiphons and psalms which don’t sound like chant.

    In my experience, congregations do not sing chant-style antiphons well. I have used examples from a number of different sources. My experience of Adam Bartlett’s work is one of nil response from all the congregations I have tried them out on. John Ainslie’s seem to work better but are still far from guaranteed. I am not yet familiar with Richard Rice’s settings.

    I am only aware of one major non-chant style antiphons/psalm project: Psallite, which was deliberately designed to be accessible to assemblies of all kinds of backgrounds and is being used as a supplementary resources in many parishes and even as the main resource in some.

    Why is it that we always think only of chant style antiphons and psalms? The argument in favour of chant style seems to be a nebulous idea of beauty, by which assemblies will eventually be entranced if exposed to it for long enough. But I suspect that the definitinon of beauty at play here is this: stuff which sounds like chant is automatically beautiful. That is a premise which I think still awaits proof.

    1. Paul,

      I think this is a key question in the whole antiphon discussion. Personally, I actively avoid most modern composed chant (e.g. simple english propers) because I don’t find it to have the same integrity or aesthetic value as the Graduale or even Simplex chants. So I actually don’t use most english chants because of aesthetics. I find them inauthentic and dull for the most part.

      A more modern, metrical style has the advantage of being more approachable as a congregational refrain; however, the approach can be somewhat Procrustean when applied to the widely variable and non-metered propers texts. A Durufle-style approach seems to me to work well, with meter change to accommodate the text but enough sense of meter to keep the singers on track. I do think there is great value in grappling with this challenge, though. I’ve had what I consider good congregational success with my own metrical english communion antiphons. Although, again, I often need to shorten the official proper text in order to make something that’s a sensible refrain length. I don’t think a chant- or pseudo-chant style is usually a great option or inherently more worthy for liturgy.

      I’d also add – I’ve never considered the simple english propers to be congregational music, although I’ve heard stories of some places where this actually works (usually places that are far from regular parish communities – e.g. small student chapels or seminary chapels). I’m not saying it’s impossible; I just know it would go over like a lead balloon in my parish. And even if it works, what have we accomplished? That brings me back to aesthetics. I do use the SEP, and I think they have some value, as baby-step music for choir or chant schola, to introduce them to neumes. But as soon as I can I transition to the real deal chant propers.

    2. I’m certainly not opposed to metrical antiphons/psalms; I have just not seen it done well much, with exceptions like Andrew Motyka’s Communion antiphons. With all due respect to the composers here on PrayTell, I find the quality of Psallite uneven, and as a whole I have not found much use for it (sorry, Liturgical Press). We should also separate tonal settings from modal settings, because it would be perfectly possible to have modal metrical settings of antiphons, as many of the psalm response settings by Richard Proulx et al in the Worship III Grail/Gelineau Psalter were. I beg to differ with Adam Bartlett’s settings – they show a great sensitivity to the text. When I have used his psalm responses for our daily school Masses, the student body participates strongly. Of course, people are used to singing the Responsorial Psalm response, but not so much an Entrance or Communion antiphon. I think perception rather than composition is the primary culprit of any low participation, which means we just need to do it more.

  15. So much of it comes down to the culture of the parish. I have seen parishes where the congregation chants robustly; others sing hymns robustly. Others still mumble through either of them. If one decides there should be more chanting, starting with the Antiphons is probably not the best way to go; rather, start with the parts in the Ordinary that can be chanted — the Lord’s Prayer, for example, and the Sanctus. I’d be hesitant to have the congregation chant the Propers (which change) if they’re not already confidently chanting the Ordinary (which don’t).

  16. Thank you, Father, for the vote of confidence in ambiguous circumstances. Them’s battles for others to fight, not me.

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