At the June 2007 Sacred Music colloquium, CMAA President Prof. William Mahrt gave a talk Friday night about the Responsorial Psalm, which is commonly used after Vatican II instead of the Gradual. Some believe that the Gradual was superseded by the Responsorial Psalm after Vatican II. Actually, guidelines currently in effect say that either is permissible.
The Gradual needs to be sung or at least led by a choir. It is proper to the occasion, which means a new one needs to be prepared for almost every Mass. Its form is in keeping with its liturgical function. Coming directly after the Lesson, it seems to be designed to complement it. In the Gradual, a small amount of text is sung to "the greatest number of notes," in tune with its purpose of aiding reflection while the congregation is absorbing the lesson. Prof. Mahrt said that in his experience, white noise stops dramatically after the Gradual is sung, because after the music has done its job, the congregation has effectively become recollected.
For an example of the beauty of the Gradual, Prof. Mahrt had those of us in the women's schola sing the Gradual for the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, which we had been practicing for the upcoming feast day. He contrasted the ornate richness of the Gradual with the relative insipidity of the feast's prescribed responsorial Psalm, for which the congregation sings the Antiphon: I praise you, for I am wonderfully made to an awkward melody.
The antiphonal singing of the Responsorial Psalm engages the congregation in an activity. Its melodies are not interesting or effective. Even though the documents say that its purpose is meditation, Mahrt wonders, since it does not further recollection, what purpose does it have, then? Some liturgists say that it is designed to give the congregation something to do.
In his writings and in his lectures, Mahrt often explains that the post-Vatican II guiding phrase "active participation," which is quoted often to justify keeping the congregation busy by singing in parts of the Mass where the choir used to sing, does not actually mean the congregation must be singing. Active participation can and should be attentiveness and contemplation during the times when it is most appropriate, such as during the opening procession, or when the lessons should be absorbed and pondered, or when the congregation is approaching the altar for Communion.
Prof. Mahrt then gave some well-developed suggestions for gradual (no pun intended) musical compromises that a choir director might introduce in stages that could lead to the full use of the Gradual in a Church's Masses.
Related to this topic, here is a little adventure of mine that reinforced what I'd learned from the lecture. On the last day of the colloquium, I wandered into the upper Shrine of the Immaculate Conception while in last minute search of subjects to photograph. I chanced into the middle of a Mass with multiple concelebrants at the moment when the cantor was leading the people in the day’s simple little antiphon for the responsorial psalm: I will praise you for you are wonderfully made.
And I was struck by the contrast between the loftiness of the Church and the impressive appearance of the multiple vested concelebrants on the one hand and the flatness of the text and the triviality of the melody. Any of the treatments Prof. Mahrt provided in his talk on the Gradual would have been much more in keeping with the solemnity of the moment and the surroundings.
Here is the Gradual sung by the women's schola in Mahrt's Gradual class and at two Masses we sang for the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.
Since I first wrote this, I found a good discussion on how to include the Gradual by Jeffrey Tucker and a lot of educated comments at the New Liturgical Movement blog.