Socrates Scholasticus, a Catholic historian of the early 400s, tells how antiphonal singing was introduced into the Mass by St. Ignatius, a disciple of St. John who was consecrated the third bishop of Antioch by St. Peter. In a vision, the bishop saw and heard two choirs of angels alternately singing praises at the throne of God. Thus impressed, he introduced the same form of song into his liturgies.
St. Ignatius’ vision notwithstanding, antiphonal prayer is older than the Catholic Church. Even before the Babylonian Captivity (598-538 B.C.), two choirs sang psalm verses back and forth until its conclusion as part of the liturgy of the Temple in Jerusalem. By the mid-300s, monks of Syria and Palestine incorporated antiphonal chant into their liturgies having heard the sung prayers of Jewish communities in cities such as Cæsarea and Antioch.
St. Augustine reports that his mentor, St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan in the 4th century, introduced the practice of singing hymns outside Mass for the Western Church and wrote many.
However Catholic antiphony began, chanted prayer has a long and cherished history in the Church. It became so prevalent that the area of the sanctuary in front of the altar became known as the “chancel” or “quire” (choir) because chanting and choral singing took place there. Cathedral canons — priests attached to a bishop’s administrative household — followed the example of their monastic brethren.
At the prescribed canonical hours members of orders met in chapels, their abbots/abbesses or priors/prioresses presiding. At the same time canons, with their bishops or archbishops. All took their places in stalls located on either side of their cathedral chancels, chanting verses of the Divine Office back and forth in a loving, beautiful cascade of prayer to God.
Antiphonal prayer flourished within monasteries and convents, as well as in cathedrals and churches whose bishops and pastors appreciated the beauty of chanted prayer. The tradition continues in various places, I’m happy to say. Recordings and videos of the imposing ceremonies surrounding antiphonal prayer may be found online. Watching the exquisite, inspiring ceremony of Solemn Vespers with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament in person at the London Oratory in Brompton is a treasured memory.
Prayers from the Divine Office (since 1969 called The Liturgy of the Hours), is recited or chanted at the canonical hours. According to the late Dr. Lucy Carroll (Adoremus Bulletin, Sept. 5, 2007), one of the foremost experts on the music of the Church and the organist at the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia:
“The four great seasonal Marian antiphons come from the Divine Office, office of Compline, the last of the sung hours of the day. At the close of Compline, one of the four seasonal Marian prayers was sung: Alma Redemptoris Mater, Ave Regina Caelorum, Regina Caeli, or Salve Regina . . .
Traditionally, at Compline, the Latin anthem was followed by seasonal declamations and a prayer. When sung at the conclusion of Mass, only the anthem is sung.
In a Marian house, the seasonal anthem is sung on Sundays and Marian feasts throughout the year at the conclusion of Mass. At our monastery, the nuns, choir, and congregation all join in the Latin chant.”
In 567, the Council of Tours, in what is now France, declared the 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany as “a sacred and festive season.” The council established Advent fasting as a preparation for these great feasts as a duty which was eventually extended to the Universal Church. Eventually Christmastide, beginning on the Vigil of the Feast of the Nativity, came to include Epiphany and its octave, and continued to Feb. 2, the Feast of the Purification.
“Alma Redemptoris Mater,” the first of the Marian Antiphons, like the other three, is a plea for the Holy Mother’s intercession. It is sung from the first Sunday of Advent — the beginning of the ecclesiastical year — until the Feast of the Purification. The translation below is by the eminent Benedictine liturgical expert, Dom Adrian Fortescue, from 1913. The original Latin text is credited to Hermanus Contractus (Herimann the Lame), a German monk (1013-1054).
“Holy Mother of our Redeemer,
Thou Gate leading to heaven and Star of the Sea;
Help the falling people who seek to rise,
Thou who, all nature wondering,
Didst give birth to thy Holy Creator.
Virgin always, hearing the greeting from Gabriel’s lips,
Take pity on sinners.”
The antiphonal chant simplex (simple tone) may be heard here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iq5CKlOyeMk
The “Ave Regina Caelorum” is chanted from Feb. 3 until the Easter Vigil, honoring Mary as The Queen of Angels. This piece was known in the 12th century, although some authorities attribute this text, again, to Hermanus Contractus.
Ave regina caelorum (Hail, queen of heaven),
Ave Domina angelorum (Hail, O Lady of the angels).
Salve radix, salve porta, (Hail, thou root, Hail thou door
Ex qua Mundo Lux est orta (Through whom was born the Light of the World).
Gaude Virgo, gloriosa (Rejoice, O glorious Virgin),
Super omnes speciosa! (Above all so beautiful!)
Vale o valde decora, (We take our leave, incredibly fair Lady,)
Et pro nobis Christum exora. (Beseeching you pray to Christ for us.)
The antiphonal chant simplex (simple tone) may be heard here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAi6T7tQruE.
Movie buffs may remember this anthem being sung by nuns in the 1959 epic film “The Miracle” starring Carroll Baker and Roger Moore.
The “Regina Cæli” will be familiar to those who pray the Angelus. This short yet glorious prayer of praise, replete with the jubilant Alleluias unheard throughout Lent, replaces the Angelus during Paschaltide. The Regina Cæli is sung after the Mass of the Resurrection to conclude the liturgy of the Vigil, and continues throughout until Pentecost Sunday. According to Dr. Carroll, “The text first appeared about the year 1200, and is often credited to Pope Gregory V (d. 998); the chant melody probably dates from the 14th century.”
“Regina Cæli, lætare, alleluia (Queen of heaven, rejoice, alleluia!)
Quia quem meruisti portare, alleluia; (For He whom thou didst deserve to bear, alleluia!)
Resurrexit sicut dixit, alleluia; (Has risen as He said, alleluia!)
Ora pro nobis Deum, alleluia (Pray for us to God, alleluia!)
In the earlier Roman Breviary, and still, when recited in place of the Angelus during Paschatide, the following verse and response are added to the antiphon:
Gaude et laetare, Virgo Maria, alleluia. (Rejoice and be glad, O Virgin Mary, Alleluia!)
Quia surrexit Dominus vere, alleluia. (For the Lord is truly risen, Alleluia!)
The antiphonal chant simplex (simple tone) may be heard here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-EJiI_yAas.
Another form of this text is “Regina Caeli Jubilo,” dating from the 17th century. It is the basis for the hymn “Be Joyful Mary” (melody by Johann Leisentritt (1527-1586).
The final Marian Antiphon is the “Salve Regina,” sung from the Monday following Pentecost until the first Sunday of Advent. It is familiar to Catholics as the prayer concluding recitation of the Holy Rosary.
The English translation, again, is by Dom Adrian Fortesque from 1913:
“Salve Regina, mater misericordiae, (Hail holy queen, mother of mercy,)
Vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra salve. (Hail our life, our sweetness, and our hope.)
Ad te clamamus, (To thee do we cry,)
Exules filii Evæ (Poor banished children of Eve.)
Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes, (To thee do we send up our sighs,)
In hac lacrimarum valle. (Mourning and weeping in this valley of tears).
Eia ergo, advocate nostra, (Turn then most gracious advocate,)
Illos tuos misericordes oculos, ad nos converte. (Thine eyes of mercy towards us.)
Et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui, (And after this, our exile, show unto us)
Nobis post hoc exsilium ostende. (The blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.)
O Clemens, o pia, o dulcis Virgo Maria. (O clement, oh loving, oh sweet Virgin Mary.)
The antiphonal chant simplex (simple tone) may be heard here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAmydVsNMqM.
(Sean M. Wright, an Emmy-nominated television writer, is a Master Catechist for the archdiocese of Los Angeles and a member of the RCIA team at Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Santa Clarita, He replies to comments sent him at Locksley69@aol.com.)