Hilkka-Liisa Vuori
hilkka-liisa.vuori [et]
p. 0407016534

Johanna Korhonen

Vox Silentii ry
c/o Vuori
Suopuronniitty 7b
02920 ESPOO
Suomi Finland

The Great Responsories of Cantus Sororum


Master of music Hilkka-Liisa Vuori



Cloister of chant




The medieval Bridgettine monastery could be called a cloister of chant. This idea arises from Birgitta's own texts. She hoped that in the cloister's church there would be an endless service for God, an officium perpetuum.  From the brothers' early morning chant all the way to the sisters' ninth hour, the singing would never cease; voices should echo in the church never ending in the praise of God. 1   Brothers in the Bridgettine monastery had a liturgy of the local diocese, but sisters were singing their own daily prayers called Cantus sororum (CS), 'the song of the sisters'. Sisters' liturgy proceeded in weekly cycles so that the same chants and texts were repeated on the same weekdays from one week to the next. Sisters' chants are very much written in honour of Mary. She is praised and prayed for in all the chants. But more than a praise of Mary, the liturgy is praise for the Holy Trinity. It is like the whole history of Christianity is in the Bridgettine chants looked through Mary's eyes.


The central textual theme of Cantus sororum appears in the texts of the lessons and the great responsories of matins, or morning prayer. The lessons of matins are called Sermo angelicus. There are 21 lessons and as many great responsories, three for every weekday morning. The textual importance can also be seen in the music. When compared with other chants of liturgy, hymns and antiphons, the great responsories are the longest, the most complicated in structure, and the most difficult musically.


In practice, it is assumed that one person was reciting the lesson, all the sisters would sing the responsum-part of responsory, then one of them would sing the solo-part, versus, and the others would join to sing a part of responsum, so called corpus.  After the morning's third responsory's corpus, the sisters would also sing doxology and the corpus yet again.




In the research of the great responsories, there is quite a large view to be seen.  These chants were part of a meditation over the day's theme, which was recited in the lesson preceding the responsory. Lessons were supposed to lead the sisters' thoughts towards the responsory's contents. Textually responsories are a summary or a comment on the preceding lesson.


If the lessons form a body of the whole Bridgettine liturgy, the core of the lessons is sung in the responsories. In this paper I want to bring forward the beginning of my study with these chants.    




The authorship 

It is written in the foreword of the lessons, that Birgitta received them from an angel. It could be said in a modern way, that she had a good working team with her confessor Petrus of Skänninge. Birgitta's part of the work was to create the lesson texts, which most presumably then her confessor Petrus of Skänninge theologically approved. 


Birgitta's way of working is described to have been very disciplined. In the foreword of lessons this creative process is described precisely. During her periods of writing she sat down every day with her writing equipment and waited for the angel to come and preach to her in her mother tongue.2 She then showed the texts to her confessor, who translated them into Latin. It is also possible that she dictated the texts to her confessor, who then wrote them down. Petrus of Skänninge organized all the chants in the liturgy and also set the music to many of them. In Birgitta's visions, Petrus is given authority over the chants and liturgy, and in this way he is allowed to change and adjust her texts according to the melodies. 3 


 It is interesting to study the musical part of these chants. How did Petrus form the entity or the great responsories?  Which ones were written by him from the basis of Birgtta's texts, and how great a part of these texts were from the older tradition?  How can one value these things from today's point of view? Our Western ideas of writing and composing seem sometimes very narrow-minded compared to medieval way of borrowing the material from the other chants, or better say, using the elements of music and texts from all man's good.




The themes of the responsory texts   


The texts of Sermo Angelicus and the responsories are a biblical history from the creation of the world to the resurrection of the Christ.  During the week the texts and the chants carry us from the Old Testament to the New Testament, as well as through the whole liturgical year.  


Sunday's theme is the Holy Trinity and God's joy over Mary, uncreated yet. "To the highest Trinity, the indivisible God, one deity, equal honour, eternal majesty, to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Who subjects the whole world to his laws. May the God three and one have mercy upon us, the God whom since eternity thou hast much pleased, O Mary. Who subjects..." (Dca 1. GR).  Monday's theme is the creation of the angles and their joy over Mary, the minor world.  "Thee, O holy Lord, all angels praise in the heavens, saying: Thou art worthy of praise and honour, O Lord. Cherubim and seraphim and all the heavenly host proclaim in thy honour, O Virgin, the praise of the Lord, saying: Thou art worthy..." (F II, 1.great responsory, GR)


Tuesday's theme is the patriarchs Abraham and Moses, but also the matriarch Eve.  Mary is described as a new Eve, a good daughter. "Leaving herself on the side of the enemy, Mother Eve excluded herself and her husband from the bounds of glory, exchanging life for death. Her happy daughter, by obeying God, defeated the enemy, restored glory, banished death; and restored life. Praise and glory be to God, for allowing a fragile mother to bear a daughter who became the Mother of her begetter. And restored..."  (F III, 1.GR).


Wednesday's theme is the birth of Mary.  In the first responsory is praised the marriage of Anna and Joakim, her parents. Second responsory is still also from the Old Testament: " The root of Jesse hath brought forth a branch, and that branch a flower. And over this flower doth rest a gentle spirit. The Virgin, Mother of God, is the branch, and the flower her Son. And over this flower doth rest a gentle spirit (F IV, 2.GR). The third responsory praises Mary, the ocean's star, Mother of God. In this responsory time period changes to the New Testament.


Thursday's theme is the birth of Christ. In the first lesson is told about young Mary.  The second lesson tells how Mary greatly understands God with her mind, body, soul, and feeling.  How she is ready, when angel greets her Ave Maria...  Second responsory describes the miracle: "Behold the miracle. The Mother of God conceived without knowing man. Standing bearing the precious burden, Mary found that she was a rejoicing mother, not knowing she was a wife. Having conceived, instead of bearing an ordinary child, she bore a pure human child within her, and eternally blessed she bore unto us God and Man. Standing bearing..." (F V, 2. GR)


Friday's theme is the passion of Christ and the compassion of Mary.  In the lessons it is described Mary's growth in love for the God, and her pain growing, because of her understanding of the becoming suffering of her son. Her braveness is a comfort for all people.  The pain the Virgin went through could not diminish her goodness and virtues.

"As the proximity of thorns does not degrade the fragrance of a blossoming rose, so did thy immense tribulations not degrade the virtue of thy inner strength, O Mother of Christ, for thou didst possess the fragrance of all virtues. Help us, our hope, and be ready to assist us, thy humble supplicants, so that success doth not make us proud and adversity doth not depress us." (F VI, 1. GR)  Saturday's theme is the resurrection of Christ, and also the assumption of Mary.  In the first lesson Mary is praised for her strength, because she believed in the resurrection of Christ.  The responsory shares this thought: "Blessed art thou, O Virgin Mary, Mother of God, who didst believe in the Lord, in thee hath come to pass that which was told unto thee: Behold, thou art exalted above the choirs of angels. Come to intercede on our behalf with our Lord Jesus Christ. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Come intercede..." (S, 1.GR) 4




The sources of the great responsories


The primary sources 5 for my study have been the Bridgettine fragments in the Helsinki University Library and the microfilms from the Stockholm's Kunliga Biblioteket (A 84).


In the Helsinki University Library there are four Bridgettine breviaries, numbers 127, 128, 165, 189, and one antiphoner, number 132. The largest one of these sources is antiphoner 132, which includes 12 folios. The smallest one is breviary 128 with only two folios. These sources are fragments, which are not even on the microfilms. All together from these five sources can be found eight great responsories, five of them complete and three partially. The found responsories are Sunday's first and third responsories Summe Trinitati and Maria summe; Tuesday's first and second responsories Eva mater and Intelligens Abraham; Wednesday's second responsory Stirps Jesse; Thursday's second responsory Videte miraculum; Friday's first and second responsories Sicut spinarum and Perenniter. 


Two of them, Sicut spinarum and Eva mater are found from both the antiphoner and the breviary source.  From these fragments are missing Monday's and Saturday's responsories, but other chants, like hymns and antiphonies are found for all the weekdays.  With only slight variations chants found from the Finnish sources and sung in Naantali (Nådendal) are the same as the ones sung in Vadstena and found in Swedish source.  This was evident, since the chants have come to Naantali from Vadstena cloister.




The background of the texts and the melodies of the great responsories


There are 21 great responsories all together in Cantus sororum. The texts of fourteen great responsories are partially or totally borrowed from the older tradition written down around 8th and 9th centuries. Eleven of the chants can be found in Hesbert's Corpus antiphonalium-series (CA), and nine chants in Solesmes brothers' Paleographie musicale (PalMus) series so called Hartker's antifonarium (HA) 6 . Eleven chants are also found in Gummerus antiphoner (Gum), so called Karjalohja antiphoner. The Gummerus antiphoner number 3 is a Finnish medieval liturgical book (mid 15th century), which has been used in Turku diocese. There also was situated Bridgettine monastery of Naantali. Gummerus antiphoner number 3 is the only one out of these three sources with musical texts.


The texts of three chants can be found complete in older tradition: Stirps Jesse, Sancta et immaculata and Que est ista. Six responsories have similar responsum-part with older tradition: Te Sanctum, Felix namque, Super salutem, Summe Trinitati, Christi Virgo and Videte miraculum.  Two responsories have small differences in the texts of responsum-parts, which are mainly just slight changes in the text like maris hodie <> maris renitens in responsory Solem Justitie or  Deum nostrum<> Jesum Christum in responsory Beata esVirgo Maria.  In some chants Petrus of Skänninge has added texts, which show especial respect to Mary, for example in the Sunday and Monday responsories.



All together I have so far found eleven great responsories in the Gummerus antiphoner, which can be considered as a variations of CS, both the texts and melodies are variated. Eight chants are the same as found in Hesbert's catalogue, and three chants are different.  That leaves us with the difference of six chants. The responsories Christi Virgo, Super Salutem and Videte miraculum are found in the Hesbert's and Paleographie musicale series, and all three Friday's responsories are found in the Gummerus antiphoner, but not in two previous ones. Friday's three responsories are found in Gummerus among the chants of the office of Mary's compassion "compassio Marie Virginis".  For to find other sources especially for Friday chants, the corpus of Lady offices need to be studied.




In the Gummerus antiphoner the most of the texts are not much variated. For example, Saturday's first responsory Beata es Virgo Maria, (Gum 3., f 93v) the responsumtext is the same as in CS and as in the Hesbert's antiphoner Nr. 6165. Versus is different than in CS, but the same as one version in Hesbert's: Benedicta et venerabilis, Virgo Maria, cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum (Gum, Hes) >< Ave Maria gratia plena, Dominus tecum (CS). Thursday's third responsory Felix namque (Gum 3., f 96r) the text is the same as in Hesbert's number 6725 and with one word difference the same as in CS: commemorationem (Gum,CS) ><assumptionem (Hes). From the older tradition Petrus has taken texts especially for Thursday (the birth of Christ), Friday (passion), and for Saturday (resurrection).  None of the Tuesday's (prophets) responsory texts are loaned.  It can be said that, the third of the chants assumingly are written by Petrus.  




Musically a common feature is when compared the Gummerus antiphoner with Cantus sororum, that the older chants are more melismatic than the Cantus sororum chants. It can be said, that Petrus of Skänninge has simplified the melodies from the older tradition.




Melodies carrying the texts




In our time, and more specifically, in our Western musical culture the melody is typically described as an independent unit. The medieval concept cantus was assumingly thought to include the concept of both the melody and the text. Cantus can be understood to mean a musical text.7 Music was there to support the text. Interesting question can be raised: was the meaning of the text expressed in the movements of the melody?   Here we have to consider the concept of the mode, if there is a connection between a mode and the text. We can talk about an atmosphere of the chant. The textual focus is in the themes. The melodic focus is in the groups of melodies that can be seen to be variations of each other.  


 In the great responsories the same melodies have been used for different kinds of texts. This tradition can be found also in the use of other types of liturgical music, for example in hymns, antiphons and short responsories.  However, none of the Cantus sororum great responsory melodies are totally similar with one another.  They can be called variations of each other.  In many cases there can be found short passages borrowed from other chants.  These passages are called formulas or elements. When analysing the connection between the melody and the text, we can study what kind of differences and similarities there are in the cases, when there is the same melody in different texts.  This way we can get closer to the concept of the mode.  What is the spirit of the sung text?




The modes




Mode is a certain type of scale of tones, but also it is the atmosphere of the chant. There are commonly used eight different modes: authentic or plagal d-, e-, f- and g-modes. It would be easy to analyse the character of a certain mode, if it did always support only a certain kind of text. However, within a mode different kinds of nuances and even very strongly different kinds of atmospheres can be found when comparing one responsory with another. This makes the analysis difficult.  Most of the Cantus sororum responsories are written in a plagal d-mode, which is according to Willy Apel 8  the most commonly used mode in the repertoire of the great responsories.


When looking at the modal division of Cantus sororum responsories for different weekdays, there can be seen that only day when there are no d-mode chants is Saturday (resurrection, assumption). The e-mode chants are found on Sunday and in the end of the week from Thursday to Saturday.  The chants in f-mode are sung in Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. The chants sung in g-mode are concentrated to the beginning of the week Sunday and Tuesday (the Holy Trinity, the patriarchs). Very cautiously I would say that many times d-mode is found in the chants of sorrow and comfort, e-mode melodies are found in the theologically most mysterious and difficult texts, g-mode is found especially in the chants of the Holy Trinity, and f-mode in the chants of joy. But there are also opposite atmospheres.  Modal scenery cannot be described as a simple one.




Variation in chant


 With the descriptions of the chants there is a need to bring forward the typical features characteristic for each chant, and on the other hand, shared features and melodies in different chants.  The chants can be connected to each other in a way, which makes it easier to analyse both textual and the melodic features. The chants with similar melodies with each other can be called a chant family. Through comparison of the chants we can try to find some clues how and why Peter of Skänninge formed and chose certain melodies and texts for the great responsories. Here I describe one example.


 The first group of the chants with similar melody with one another forms out of three plagal d-mode great responsories: Monday's second responsory Benedicta terra, Wednesday's second responsory Stirps Jesse and Thursday's first responsory Sancta et immaculata. All these chants have a similar responsum-part and a similar versus-part with one another.


The melody of Stirps Jesse is a well known chant from the older tradition. The text of Stirps Jesse and also the text of Sancta et immaculata are also found from the older tradition.  So far I have not found Benedicta terra from the older tradition, so it could be written by Petrus.   In the verse of Stirps Jesse Virgin Mary is compared to a branch, her deeds are flowers and her son is the fruit. In the responsory Sancta et immaculata the Son is compared to a fruit. In the text of Petrus, Benedicta terra, the Virgin mother is compared to earth, her deeds are flowers and her Son is the fruit. In the verse of the chant the earth and her fruits are blessed and praised for.  All three chants with a similar melody, have a common theme also in the texts.  In the week's cycle the chant by Petrus is before older chants; it is Monday's chant while the others are Wednesday's an Thursdays' chants. Here in these chants we can see the melodic as well as modal similarity between the chants with similar texts. How common it is with these great responsories, needs a further study of the rest of the chant families.




The length of the melodies


When considering versus, responsum and doxology, the longest chants of the week are always the third responsories of the mornings.  But if we take into consideration only the responsum and the versus, then the three longest chants of the week are all Friday?s chants. The fourth longest chant is Thursday?s second responsory and the three next ones are Sunday?s great responsories.  So, we can notice that the longest chants of the week are found in the responsory repertoire of Friday and Sunday, which could be seen important day?s as when looking at the content of days' texts.  The most modest day with this logic should then be Monday, the angels? day.






The great responsories are considered to be the most melismatic chants in the repertoire of office music. Melismatic means that there is more than one note sung with one syllable.  In the CS responsories the responsum-parts are more melismatic than verses.  This is indeed interesting since the verse was sung by a soloist, and the responsum-part by the chorus.  It would be more likely that the verses should be more melismatic.


The most melismatic great responsories are Wednesday's second and third responsories Stirps Jesse (5,17) and Solem justitie (4,38).  Then comes Sunday's third and first responsories Maria summe (3,93) and Summe Trinitati (3,50).  One opinion is, that the older the repertoire the more melismatic it is.  These chants approve this theory, since the texts of Stirps Jesse, Solem justitie and Summe Trinitati- three out of four- most melismatic chants can be found in the older tradition.   We are not talking about big differences. The average of the responsum-parts is 3,03 when the average of the versus-parts is 2,21. The most melismatic-parts of all the parts of the great responsories are the doxologies of third responsories. The most melismatic of doxologies is Maria summe's doxology (3,81).  About the modality it can be said that the most melismatic responsories are in d-mode. The least melismatic responsory is Friday's third responsory, which could be seen as an impression of the day's texts.




Praying with the voice



The ideal of whole human being, mind and body, singing and praying can be found in  Birgitta's orders concerning singing. The way of singing as well as the singer's state of mind are described with the same adjectives. This, kind of holistic idea, is found also in the union of melody and text. The melody of responsory was supposed to work to serve the text, so that melody expressed the meaning, feeling and the atmosphere of the text, and helped the singer attain the state of mind that was in the text. This harmony of text and melody is the idea of modal music.


Sisters were to sing the hours of Mary solemnly and with devotion in their hearts.  This devotion was also to be in reading and singing out loud and in other outward observances   9 The idea of a whole human being involved in praying and singing is the wisdom that is seen already in the old church fathers' writings and it goes all the way back to the times of antiquity. 


 In the reciting of the matins' lesson texts and in the singing of the following great responsory we can see the multiple process of learning, and understanding of human body and mind. With a monotonous sound of singing, the recited lesson text was supposed to lead the sisters to a contemplative state of mind, so that they would deeply feel and hear the lesson text and then join to sing the great responsory. The melody of the great responsory was to serve the text, so that the text and melody together would form the mode of the prayer and in such way help the sisters to attain a certain state of mind.  In  Speculum Virginum, which also was recited to Birgitta, is written: " For Christ seeks the open ears, he seeks open eyes, that is, so that what the sound commends outwardly shall reside within you, and so that what is drawn in through the eyes' gaze may bear fruit to the consideration of the mind..." 10






1  Heliga Birgittas Uppenbarelser  efter gamla handskrifter, G.E. Klemming, fjerde bandet.  Stockholm 1862, Constitutiones 14:5; Moberg: Den heliga Birgitta och musiken. -Svenskt gudtjänsliv 40. Uppsala 1965, p 8.


2 Sancta Birgitta: Opera Minora II Sermo Angelicvs edit. Sten Eklund. Uppsala 1972. Revelaciones Book XI. 


3 Sancta Birgitta: Revelaciones Extravagantes 7, edit. Lennart Hollman.Uppsala 1956.

4 The translations of the chant texts Jaakko Mäntyjärvi and Diana Tullberg.


5 Helsinki University Library, fragments: Breviaries Nr. 127, 128,165, 189, and antiphoner no. 132; Finland's National archivet, fragments: Gummerus antiphoner, Gum Nr. I:3; Kungliga Biblioteket Codex A 84.

6  Hesbert, Renato-Joanne: Corpus antiphonalium officii vol. IV : Responsoria, versus, hymni et varia.  Rooma 1970; Paléographie Musicale. Les principaux Manuscrits de Chant.

7 Nilsson, Ann-Marie: On liturgical hymn melodies in Sweden during the middle ages.  Skrifter från Musikvetenskapliga institutionen nr. 24, pp. 95,132. Göteborg 1991.

 8 Apel, Willi: Gregorian chant. 1958, p.331.


9 Myroure of oure Ladye 1898, p.22.


10 Speculum Virginum 3.10-14 studied in the article by Morgan Powell: The Audio-visual poetics of instruction pp.111-135 -Listen daughter edit. Constant J. Mews New York 2001.












21 great responsories of Cantus sororum


Dominica (D), Sunday

1. R. Summe Trinitati  V. Prestet nobis gratiam, VII mode.


2. R. O Maria, dignissimum vehiculum V. Infer igitur, III mode


3. R. Maria summe trinitatis V. Respice propicia, II mode




Feria secunda (F II), Monday


4. R. Te sanctum Dominum  V.  Cherubim atque Seraphim, I mode


5. R. Benedicta terra  V. Vere hec terra est Virgo Mater, II mode


6. R. Christi Virgo dilectissima V.Quoniam peccatorum, II mode




Feria tertia (F III), Tuesday


7. R.Eva mater hosti consentiens  V. Laus Deo sit gloria, I mode


8. R. Intelligens Abraham  V. Exultet igitur, VIII mode


9. R. O ineffabiliter divitem  V. Hic ad patriam, VIII mode




Feria quarta (F IV), Wednesday


10. R. Beata Mater Anna  V. Exulta reverenda, VI mode


11. R. Stirps Jesse  V. Virgo Dei genitrix, II mode


12. R. Solem justitie Regem  V.  Cernere divinum, I mode




Feria quinta (F V), Thursday


13. R. Sancta et immaculata virginitas  V. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, II mode


14. R.  Videte miraculum  V.  Hec speciosum, III mode


15. R.  Felix namque es, sacra Virgo Maria V. Ora pro populo, II mode




Feria sexta (F VI), Friday


16. R. Sicut spinarum V.     Assiste spes nostra, I mode


17.  R. Perenniter sit benedicta tua V.   Overe dilectionis plenissima, III mode


18. R. Palluerunt pie Matris maxille V.   O immensam charitatem, VI mode




Sabbato (S), Saturday

19. R. Beata es, Virgo Dei Genitrix  V.  Ave Maria gratia plena,  VI mode.


20. R.  Que est ista, que processit sicut sol  V. Que est ista que ascendit, IV mode. 


21. R. Super salutem V. Valde eam nos oporte venerari, III mode.