Antiphonal and Responsorial Singing

“Antiphonal singing” means dividing a group of singers into two groups in such a way that they are (usually) separated spacially from each other, for example: the right and left sides of a church; the front of a church and the balcony in the back of the church. The singings usually alternate (one group sings and the other group responds).

“Responsorial singing” means singing a response to a chanted or read verse of scripture (usually a psalm). A cantor or priest sings or reads the verse and the choir or congregation sings the response.

Antiphonal singing was common in ancient Greek religious rites (see the Illiad, c. 850 BCE) and drama (such as those of Aeschylus and Sophocles), where choirs of singers consisted of one of four combinations of groups: (1) men, (2) women, (3) men and women, (4) men and boys.

There is also evidence in the Old Testament that antiphonal singing was used in Jewish Temple worship (1 Chronicles 15:16; 1 Chronicles 15:22; 2 Chronicles 5:12-13; Nehemiah 12:31-9).

Philo of Alexandria describes antiphonal congregational singing by a 1st century Jewish sect called, Therapeutae:

They rise up together and ... form themselves into two choirs, one of men and one of women, the leader chosen from each being the most honoured and most musical among them. They sing hymns to God composed of many measures and set to many melodies, sometimes chanting together, sometimes antiphonally ... It is thus that the choir of the Therapeutae of either sex -- note in response to note and voice to voice, the deep-toned voices of the men blending with the shrill voices of the women -- create a truly musical symphony. [De vita contemplativa ]

Philo's use of ‘antiphonal’ may have been incorrect since it was the practice of the Jewish communities to use a soloist to chant the psalms. Consequently, the actual practice was probably responsorial rather than antiphonal.

The early Christian Church lacked the financial resources to pay professional singers for choirs. In addition (because they had to often meet secretly), there was logistically no opportunity to cultivate choirs of trained singers. Consequently, singing in the early Christian Church developed mainly as a congregation activity. Origen (c. 185 - c. 254) commented that,

“The Greeks use Greek, the Romans Latin ... and everyone prays and sings praises to God as best he can in his mother tongue'.

Athough initially, men and women probably sang together, the early Church soon began to follow Paul’s admonition (1 Corinthians 14:34) and consequenlty by about 200 CE did not allow women to participate in congregational singing.

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The early Christian Church borrowed Jewish Temple and Synagoge musical practices, especially the technique of antiphonal and responsorial singing. Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea (c. 260 - c. 340) commented in his Historia ecclesiastica that the Christians were still practicing the methods of singing described by Philo (see above).

After Christianity became the official state religion after 313 CE, the art of singing began to flourish as choir schools became established. Throughout the Middle Ages antiphonal and responsorial singing continued to develop. The elaborate chants were intended for expert virtuoso singers while simple chants consisting of one syllable per note were intended to be sung by priests and congregations.

[Based on information from Grove's, New Dictionary of Music and Musicians Online.]

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