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"There is a lack of that kind of organization which favors mature judgment. Move on, move on, get it out. Schemata are multiplied without ever arriving at a considered form. The system of discussion is bad … Often the schemata arrive just before the discussions. Sometimes, and in important matters, such as the new anaphoras, the schema was distributed the evening before the discussion was to take place … Father Bugnini has only one interest: press ahead and finish."
— Cardinal Antonelli (Peritus during the Second Vatican Council)

Guest Article • “Composing a Responsorial Psalm”
published 17 September 2018 by Guest Author
We were sent the following guest article—the first in a series—by Dr. Brian J. Nelson, who can be reached via email.

HAT MAKES for a good responsorial psalm setting? Is it mere “singability,” a catchy tune, or is it something more? To arrive at a complete and convincing answer to this question, I propose breaking the compositional process into three large sections: (1) the antiphon melody; (2) harmonizing the antiphon; and (3) the role of counterpoint. The Psalm tone and Psalmody for the Verses. Each of these will also be divided into discrete steps, 1 resulting in a three-part series explaining in some depth how to compose a successful responsorial psalm.

Having laid out our overall plan and methodology, we now turn our attention to the antiphon melody. With the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary still fresh in our minds, let’s take the responsorial psalm antiphon from that Mass as the basis for our endeavor: R. The Queen stands at your right hand, arrayed in gold.

Step 1

“The meaning of the text and its relationship to the first reading.”

The first reading is from the Revelation to St. John in the eleventh and twelfth Chapter. It tells the story of the “woman, clothed with the sun, and on her head a crown of twelve stars,” a clear reference to Mary. In a classic example of Augustine’s adage, “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old, and the Old is unveiled in the New,” this Psalm “comments” on the Assumption as something already accomplished as well as an ongoing reality in heaven.

Step 2

“An examination of the natural stresses of the text when spoken as one would read it aloud at Mass.”

This is important because—if done well—it will infuse into the sung antiphon a sense of naturalness and grace flowing out of the text itself. Below, I have marked all the stressed words and syllables. All stressed syllables are underlined; the primary stresses are bolded, and the word receiving the greatest stress is written in all caps.

Step 3

“A dictation of the natural musical rhythm of the text as spoken.”

This is, of course, closely related to the issue of stressed syllables as noted above. That is—in general—the greater the stress, the longer the note value. However, a strict 1:1 relationship cannot be relied upon here. Note that “hand” receives a longer musical duration even though it is second in the hierarchy of stress noted above.

This has to do with what I call “the textualization of the music” and “the musicalization of the text.” The former is more commonly understood under the rubric of text painting. The latter, however, is just as important. More on this later.

Step 4

“An initial compositional draft.”

Having unveiled some of the inner workings of the text in steps two and three, one might ask if we should simply “hang” the melodic line on the stress/rhythmic framework above and call it a day. The answer is—perhaps surprisingly—“no,” and I’ll explain why in step 5 below. Meantime and for the sake of demonstration, let’s try to do just that:

Step 5

“A critique of the compositional draft in light of the theological meanings of the text and their musical implications.”

Now, on the surface the above setting seems OK: It flows nicely and mirrors the natural stresses of the text and its inherent musical rhythm. Above all, it is easy to sing. Looking a little deeper, however, there are several problems with the setting that disqualify it as something to actually use at Mass.

First, following on the natural stresses of the text, the most important word here is clearly “Queen.” Of course it is true that Mary is a queen, but her queenship is always in reference to Christ as his Queen mother. This musical setting fails to underline that connection.

Second, and on a related note, is the next major musical stress on “hand.” Like “Queen,” “hand” does not have an isolated meaning in the text, but rather is modified by “right,” which this setting does not bring out. Why is this important? Again, this touches on the first point about the queenship of Mary. The phrase “right hand” implies authority, but authority that comes from someone else. For example, we might say, “John, yes, he is definitely the owner’s right hand man.” While its clear that John has authority, it is also clear that it both comes from, and is excercised on behalf of another. And so it is with Mary: she has tremendous authority, but it flows from the Divine authority of her Son.

Third, the music has no sense of ascent, but in fact descends throughout. Although a descending line is truly the most natural way to set this particular rendering of the rhythm and relative weight of the textual stresses, it is certainly not fitting for the Assumption of Mary into Heaven!

Finally, this setting fails to bring out the longer trajectory of the text. Note that the first half of the Antiphon describes Mary as arrived in heaven. But what are the details and character of her presence there? Surely we are not dealing with something as prosaic as, for example:

The Queen stands at your right hand, at six o’clock.


The Queen stands at your right hand, all dressed in gray.

No indeed! She is arrayed in gold: a metal precious, unable to be tarnished, dazzling with its reflected light. Moreover, an “array” implies an abundant display, a beautiful multiplicity. Taken together with Mary’s Immaculate Conception and sinless life, it becomes clear that the music needs to convey something very special here.

Step 6

“Integrating our insights and final composition.”

So, to summarize the points made in step four, an effective musical setting must:

• Place the Queenship of Mary in relation to Christ by stressing the phrase “right hand” as such.

• Evoke the Assumption with some sense of ascent.

• Communicate the beauty and radiance of the final phrase, “arrayed in gold.”

With these in mind, let’s have a second pass at the antiphon:

Before detailing how we addressed the particular issues above, we should note some small but important changes in our approach to the text as shown below. As before, all stressed words/syllables are underlined; major stresses are also bolded; the principal stress is indicated by uppercase letters:

First, see how the relative weight of the textual and musical stresses has changed. Although “Queen” is still a major stress, “your” is no longer stressed at all. Conversely, “right,” which had been unstressed previously, now receives a major emphasis. Finally, the second syllable of “arrayed” has changed from a minor stress to the principal stress in the sung antiphon.

From the perspective of meaning, this emphasizes Mary’s authority as under the ultimate authority of God. Even so, the music now pushes forward toward “arrayed in gold.” Why this change? Because Mary goes before us as the first, best example of what a redeemed human being looks like (that is, in the radiance of her holiness), and what we ourselves are called to in God’s kingdom. Although it is only a hunch, I think this is the very thing that makes Marian feasts so joyful and meaningful for the faithful.

Second, observe the change from 3/4 to 4/4, giving the music a longer sense of line. The first draft was simply too short and choppy. Moreover, the 3/4 meter, with its well-known association with the waltz, implied a certain triteness not befitting of the subject. In this final version we have something much more appropriate and with many more layers of meaning.

Now on to the other elements:

• The ascending line is notable from the start, as is the musical stress not only on “Queen,” but on “right hand,” making a better musical and textual connection between Mary and Jesus.

• The word “arrayed” is set with a four-note melisma, bringing out its quality of abundance and multitude.

• The overall trajectory is better now, driving as it does toward “gold” rather than arriving at a premature cadence on “hand” (see the next installment on harmonizing the antiphon; hint, the F# on the word “hand” is not the root of an F# minor chord).

• The word “gold” is set to a picardy third, bringing out the radiance of Mary’s holiness.

• Finally, in light of the primarily step wise motion—with any leaps outlining only triads—it is easy and satisfying to sing.

Now that we have a viable antiphon, the next step will be to add other voices to create the accompaniment. We will discuss this in Part 2 of the series in October.

We hope you enjoyed this guest article by Dr. Brian J. Nelson.


1   Of course, all these steps may be compressed into a single inspiration, or stretched out for many hours or days. Alternately, they can be used as a critical framework to analyze the quality of a responsorial psalm antiphon, suggesting the need for revision after the fact.