Pointing the English Epistle

Thanks to the generosity of Father and the congregation, I’ve been honored to serve as sub-deacon at the Church of the Advent; last Sunday was my subdiaconal debut which went rather well. We use an adapted form of Fortescue’s ceremonial for those interested; I may put up my own notes on our practice if there’s interest.

One of the major tasks of the sub-deacon is the proclamation of the Epistle. Following the best historical practice, it is sung recto tono or just simply read on most days. There is, however, an Epistle tone which is used on the highest feast days. The Epistle tone uses intonations for the metrum (pausing point), full stop, and questions as well as a unique concluding tone. As a result, I’ve been working on pointing the Epistles; last week it was the Pentecost reading, this week the Holy Trinity. It’s not a completely straight-forward process so I thought I’d share some of what I’m learning.

1. The presence of the metrum requires interpretive choices. That is, it marks a pause in the main thought of the sentence from which you continue to the end. Now I’ve noticed that readers in many churches have trouble proclaiming Paul well—and that’s entirely understandable. Even in translation, Paul’s writing style is unfamiliar to modern Americans. He uses long sentences with quite a number of clauses. And not all of these clauses are created equal, either. Some are parenthetical; some are additional; some are central.The trick is to proclaim them in such a way that the differences can be discerned by those listening.

When chanting the reading, my base rule is that the metrum doesn’t just go on any ol’ comma or semi-colon that presents itself; rather, a metrum only belongs at the conclusion of a central or substantive clause. For parenthetical or additional clauses, I just put a holding punctus on the reciting tone at the conclusion.

2. My first port of call was the very helpful Sung Reading Tutorial and the accompanying audio files from the good folks at CMAA posted at MusicaSacra. Unfortunately, at the present time the link to the printed tutorial is broken. The audio, however, contains almost word-for-word what is in the tutorial.

The one problem that I encountered in working fro this pattern is that, while the example is with an English text, the directions still have Latin in mind. This comes to a head in describing the metrum—all of the examples in the document have the accent on the penultimate syllable rather than the ultimate (er, second to last rather than last). So, I went looking for some assistance…

3. …And found it in on the website of the (Roman) International Commission on English in the Liturgy. They have a document called “Music for the English Language Roman Missal” which gave some very helpful examples.

15 thoughts on “Pointing the English Epistle

  1. Paul Goings

    Following the best historical practice, it is sung recto tono or just simply read on most days.

    I would be interested in more details. I know of no pre-Reformation examples that suggested the reading of the lessons at sung services.

    As to the chant, the metrum at colons (unless they are setting off a speaker) and the punctum at full stops.

  2. John Robison

    We use an adapted form of Ritual Notes for those interested;

    Now now. Fortesque is what Father continually refers to. He looked a tad confused when I showed him my copy of Ritual Notes.

  3. Derek Olsen


    I refer you to the 5th Colloquy of Aelfric Bata, our only known example of the third generation of the Benedictine Revival in England who wrote some quite colorful and amusing dialogues to teach his students their advanced Latin. In this one they’re describing their day for their master:

    …[After the post-terce signal] Then we went straight to church to sing our prayers and afterwards we put on our church vestments for mass. We sang mass and the holy office [sext] with the other brothers.
    Were you all vested then?
    No, just the ones on weekly duty–the cantor and the one who reads the epistle, the deacon who reads the gospel, and the priest. Only they were vested.
    (Et sic perreximus ad ecclesiam ad nostras orationes psallendas, et postea induimus nos cum vesimentis ecclesiasticis ad missam, et cantauimus missam et sinaxes cum aliis fratribus.
    Fuisti omnes tunc induti?
    Non utique, nisi ebdomedarii, cantor, et qui epistolam legit et diaconus, qui euangelium legit, et presbiter. Illi soli fuerunt uestiti tantum.)

    This is the reference that jumps to mind first. Let me recheck some sources for additional confirmation…

  4. Derek Olsen

    Wow, David–I was unaware of this work! (Mr. Knitter, you have some explaining to do…)

    Yes, the pattern that I use is that set forth in Appendix B on pages 50 through 53.

    So *that’s* where the tonal antiphons for the invitatory antiphons in the St Dunstan’s Plainsong Psalter came from…

    I shall definitely have to study this work further.

  5. Derek Olsen


    Here’s a more solid confirmation of what I had mentioned above. This comes from the Ordo Romanus Primus:

    Meanwhile the district-subdeacons go up to the altar, and place themselves at the right and left of the altar. Then the pontiff signs to the bishops and presbyters to sit. Now, as soon as the subdeacon who is going to read perceives that the bishops and presbyters are sitting down before the pontiff, he goes up into the ambo and reads the epistle. When he has finished reading, a chorister goes up into the same with the grail [gradual], and sings the respond. And then the Alleluia is sung by another singer, if it should be the season when Alleluia is said; if not a tract; if when neither one nor the other is appointed, only the respond is sung.
    (Tunc ascendunt subdiaconi regionarii ad altare, statuentes se ad dextram sive ad sinistram altaris. Tunc pontifex adnuit episcopis et presbyteris ut sedeant. Subdiaconus vero qui lecturus est, mox ut videit post pontificem episcopos et presbyteros residentes, adscendit in ambonem et legit. Postquam legerit, cantor cum cantatorio adscendit et dicit responsum. Ac diende per alium cantorem si fuerit tempus ut dicatur, Allelia concinitur: sin autem, tractum: sin minus, tantummodo responsum cantatur.)

    What I take from this (and to explain further the logic above) is that how the Epistle and Gospel are proclaimed is a way of marking the height of the occasion. Thus the Epistle is read on regular Sundays, monotoned in certain seasons, and sung by the prescribed tone on Feasts.

    I believe that y’all do it up every week at S. Clement’s but most parishes just aren’t there…


    You’re right, of course, that Father uses Fortescue but the overall effect to my eyes is that of a simplified Ritual Notes.

  6. C. Wingate

    Not that this has anything to do with the subject at hand, but it seems that one can always count on the ICEL for some eye-rolling comments. I point to their rejection of the tradition tone for the preface dialogue as possibly being “difficult for congregations”, as though Episcopalians hadn’t been singing it thusly for 35 years or more. (Well, at least up to the third response, where one simply runs out of syllables, but in that case the text is clumsily abrupt.)

  7. Paul Goings


    In my opinion, you’re engaging in a bit of eisegesis, privileging the English translations of the texts that you’ve cited. So when you have “epistolam legit” in Aelfric and “adscendit in ambonem et legit,” the English word “reads” is used to translate. And we take this as referring to the speaking voice. But that’s not what the Latin implies liturgically, according to any author I’ve ever read. Thus, in the Missale Romanum, when discussing the response after the Gospel, we have, “quae legitur in tono Evangelii.” Now this can hardly refer to the speaking voice! Similarly, one often reads about the Divine Office being “recited,” which actually means intoning the text on one note.

    I’m missing entirely how you get from the O.R.P. the suggestion of different modes of proclaiming the epistle on the various liturgical days; all I note is a reference to what chants follow, and who should sing them.

    The singing of the lessons is one of those things which seems to have gotten short shrift in the modern Church. From experience, I suggest that there are three main reasons for this:

    1. Lingering or incipient protestantism, where chanting parts of the service is perceived as “too catholic.”

    2. A vestige of the “Low Mass über alles” phenomenon, which increasingly dominated liturgical praxis from the end of the Renaissance, and seemingly makes dreariness into a virtue.

    3. The misplaced desire to be “inclusive,” and the further (probably correct) belief that more volunteers can be found to read lessons rather than sing them. Thus, so that we can have a “representative” selection of lectors, the lessons are read.

    There is a variant of this last which is a particularly odious form of clericalism, and expresses itself as the principle that only the clergy should chant things liturgically.

    I have some sympathy for the principle of progressive solemnity, but I suggest that here it’s being read back into historical situations. The general principle is that the lessons are sung in sung services; it is normative, and not a way to “do it up” for special occasions. Now I’m sure that any number of particular exceptions could be found, but to say that what happens in your parish represents “the best historical practice” is to go pretty far beyond what I know of liturgical history.

  8. Derek Olsen

    Sorry, Paul, I wasn’t clear–I’m not suggesting that progressive solemnity is present in the historical texts; I’m suggesting it for current practice. The unhelpfully vague “this” was intended as a reference to the use of reading in an otherwise sung mass, not to any indication that progressive solemnity was found therein.

    In both portions of both texts there is a consistent use of “leg-” for reading and “cant-” and “dic-” for singing. I’ll go back and see if there are any uses of “leg-” for clearly sung texts… To suggest that even a Tridentine use of “leg-” should determine our translation of these texts is equally eisegetical. I think it remains an open question as to whether these were intoned or read in a speaking voice.

  9. Derek Olsen

    I’d include a fourth reason as well:

    Pure and simple ignorance. While causes 1 and and 2 have contributed to it, the practical effect is that many of our clergy simply don’t know what can go into a sung mass and, too, there are quite number who don’t care to know either…

  10. David Donnell

    I had a hard copy of this in the 1960s, which is either in one of the hundreds of boxes of books in my basement or gone for ever. Hard to say …

    In any case, I was glad that Scott Knitter uploaded it to scribd so I could have a look at it again.

  11. David Donnell

    Hmm, yes. Do, re, mi, fa; probably quite a lot to ask from the average group of Christians. Can’t think how the Church has managed to sing it in Latin, English and countless other languages for the past thousand years or so.

  12. Paul Goings


    Well, that makes more sense, and I can see how such a distinction could be used within the general principle of progressive solemnity. I have to say though, that the idea of progressive solemnity makes me uncomfortable on a certain level. In theory it’s great, and I certainly see why there was a desire to go beyond the rigid said/sung, all-or-nothing dichotomy that existed historically. But in practice, it often appears to work out as an exercise in clericalism or laziness. I’m not saying that this is true of any particular parish, but I would suggest that it generally holds true in the Roman and Anglican parishes in the U.S.

    Even assuming a well-ordered scheme of progressive solemnity, however, it seems to me that singing all of the singable texts would proceed and not follow the use of incense or vested sacred ministers. This is open to debate, of course; has anyone ever suggested some raking of these various marks of solemnity?

    Your other comment is also very true, I think. Isn’t there a proverb that says that we should never attribute to malice that which can be explained by mere ignorance?

    I also take your point about my reading of the modern Missale. In terms of the historical texts, though, are there examples of references to the lessons being sung (cantat) rather than read (legit)? To suggest that such a scheme was being employed, I’d want to locate references to the singing/reading of texts that related to a certain style of celebration. What’s the accepted critical text for the O.R.P.? And, more importantly, what’s it going to cost me these days? It is, in any case, an open question that is worthy of more research, although rather out of my area of expertise.

  13. Derek Olsen


    In my post on a table of precedence, there are three major categories. I think that these could correspond to Solemn High Mass, Sung Mass, and Low Mass with one set of exceptions. The problem is that I removed the a classification under Class I that appeared in the Roman list: Solemnities of Our Lord, the BVM, and saints in the General Calendar. The division between Solemnities and Feasts in the Roman OF does not have a clear parallel in the BCP and, on the strength of the current text I can find no reason to elevate some Holy Days above others. If I were to make this suggesting equating the ranks with these proposed classes, then I would feel bound to introduce a class of locally determined Solemnities for Our Lord, Lady, and other Saints into Class I in order that they could be celebrated with the Solemn High Mass that they deserve. (I.e., I would bend the rules for the sake of jumping some feasts up, not the other way around…)

    The current critical edition of OR I remains that of Andreiu, which was published between 1931-61. An even better place to troll, of course, would be OR L, the so-called Romano-German Pontifical, which incorporates host of earlier ordines and which became the standard liturgical working document after the 10th century on the continent and, eventually, England. Vogel did the critical edition, but there may well be an online version contained within the MGH. I keep thinking a translation of OR L would make a great spare-time project but as I never seem to have spare time…

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