Saturday, January 30, 2010

Vespers pre- and post-1912

As all men know, Pope St Pius X did two very daring things: 
  • first, he caused a change to the traditional order of reception of the sacraments - not of set purpose but because he desired to encourage all frequently to partake of Holy Communion, and so ordered that all children having reached the age of reason could communicate - as the age for Confirmation remained what it had been previously, in most countries it transpired that children began making their first Holy Communion before being confirmed; 
  • second, he had the weekly order of reciting the psalmody in the Divine Office rearranged - so that nearly all the psalms were recited only once in the week (rather than some being repeated every day), and thereby shortening the Office, while ensuring, by a change of the rubricks, that on most days (other than the great feasts) the ferial psalms were said, so that each week most of the Psalter was prayed (by the growth in the number of feasts over the centuries, which took their psalms from the Common, many psalms allotted to ferial days were hardly ever said).

Whatever of the first concern, the second I think, over all - beware, those besotted with the ancient Roman cursus psalmorum! "Rome has spoken..." and all that - to have been beneficial.  

For a start, rather than daily reading the long Psalm 118 at the  Little Hours, and having twelve psalms to get through each night at Matins, it was decided to reduce Matins to nine psalms or portions thereof, and to redistribute the surplus psalms over Prime, Terce, Sext and None, moreover making each of those Hours somewhat shorter than before.  

This to be honest made the Little Hours much more interesting, and reduced the fatigue of the Night Office - certainly I enjoy the daily variation at Prime, Terce, Sext and None (unfortunately, the lengthy and highly repetitive nature of Psalm 118 still can make these Hours difficult on Sundays and feasts, I find), and given that I find even nine psalms or parts thereof rather tiring, I hate to imagine how twelve full psalms would seem.  The reforms reduced the length of Matins on most days by half, or even by two-thirds!

(That said, it is said that an angel appeared to one of the Desert Fathers to reveal that twelve was the right number of psalms for Matins.  Then again, I'm not a holy hermit!)

I will leave aside the changes made to Lauds for a later post...

As for Compline, I do wish that it hadn't been changed, and had remained invariable - Psalms 4, 90 and 133 are supremely suitable for the Hour.  As it is, on ferias other psalms, redistributed from Matins, were introduced, which rather destroyed one beauty of Compline: that it could be said from memory in darkness just before retiring for the night.  (Benedictines retained both their ancient invariable Compline, and the lovely custom of singing it in choir entirely unlit, but for a candle burning before the image of Our Lady, to which all turned at the end to sing her anthem.)

But my real interest is Vespers, pre- and post-1912.

Vespers had always consisted of five psalms each day, taken in order from Psalms 109 to 147 (except for four: 117, used at Prime or Lauds; 118, used at the Little Hours; 133, at Compline; and 142 at Lauds one morning).  Psalms 1 to 108 were nearly all used at Matins, and some at Lauds, Prime and Compline; Psalms 148 to 150, the Laudate psalms par excellence, were used daily together at Lauds, which was named after them.

Surprisingly little change was made: only five psalms were removed entirely (and employed at Lauds), and four were moved forward by a day, while four were divided into portions:

  • Sunday — Pss 109, 110, 111, 112, 113 [unchanged]
  • Monday — Pss 114, 115, (116 - moved to Lauds), 119, 120 (plus 121 from Tuesday)
  • Tuesday — Pss (121 - moved back), 122, 123, 124, 125 (plus 126 from Wednesday)
  • Wednesday — Pss (126 - moved back), 127, 128, 129, 130 (plus 131 from Thursday)
  • Thursday — Pss (131 - moved back), 132, (134 - moved to Lauds) 135 (broken into two), 136 (plus 137 from Friday)
  • Friday — Pss (137 - moved back), 138 (broken into two), 139, 140, 141
  • Saturday — Pss 143 (broken into two), 144 (broken into three), (145, 146, 147 - all moved to Lauds)
One happy consequence of this reform was that the disparity in length of psalmody (measured by the number of verses of the psalms to be recited) between different evenings at Vespers was diminished: before 1912, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday Vespers were all very short, less than half as long as Vespers of the other days - while Thursday evening had a particularly lengthy Vespers, which was cut down to size by the reforms.  By roughly evening the evenings up, it would seem that some good was effected.

In summary, Sunday Vespers remained unchanged, Vespers of Monday through to Friday more or less had two changes each, but remained mainly unchanged, and only Saturday Vespers (first Vespers of Sunday) was markedly affected.

Yes, it will be noticed that it is Saturday Vespers - such as first Vespers of Septuagesima, which I've claimed below can be truly called the start of the Church's Year of Grace - that has been cut down.

Perhaps, pro pia devotione, one could read Psalms 145, 146 and 147 after Saturday Vespers, to experience somewhat of the character of that Hour in its older form.


Rubricarius said...

I must beg to differ and say I much prefer to have Psalm 118 at the Hours every day. I do not find it boring or tedious but inspiring.

The familiarity is also reassuring and comforting.

Joshua said...

How many ways can one say, Lord, I love Thy Law?

About 176 it seems!

It is a pity that, unlike the Monastic Breviary, still available with the hallowed cursus of psalms as arranged by St Benedict, the traditional Roman arrangement of the psalms is now used by no one, at least, not as the official prayer of the Church.

(I seem to recall discussion of this - while pro pia devotione one could use a pre-1912 Breviary, it would not fulfil one's obligation as a cleric to pray the actual Breviary.)

Rubricarius said...


Whilst I appreciate the Monastic cursus I must confess, de gustibus, to preferring the Roman.

Of course Ps. 118 is used on Sundays and Mondays in the Monastic rite for the Little Hours with the same Gradual psalms then used each day from Tuesday to Saturday - is that so different to using Ps. 118?

There is the principle 'officium pro officio valet'. St. Francis Xavier's cause was presented with the fact he refused the Tridentine reform and carried on with his particular Breviary.

I know of several clerics, all 'in good standing', as the expression goes, who are now using the pre-Pius X Breviary.

Kind regards from freezing London.

Joshua said...

How interesting - I'd never heard of the case of St Francis Xavier: do tell.

Interesting, too, to read of the "several clerics"...

Pardon me, but given the much greater length of the older Office, how do its reciters manage it?

Rubricarius said...


I'll add it to a list of things I need to check the references to. (I hope St. Francis was not using Quignonez Breviary!)

With regard to length of the Office in theory the pre-1911 Office was considerably longer but in practice it really was not that different to what came afterwards. The calendar was full of feasts of nine lessons and the 'Pius X' breviary has quite a few of those too. When recited I always found a nine lesson feast not really much longer than a three lesson one. It somehow seems easier to recite just three psalms and then move into lessons rather than go through nine (or twelve in the Old Office). When sung of course that changes considerably.

Joshua said...

Yes, I too find it much easier, somehow, to say just three psalms, then the three lessons, and then to begin the next nocturn, rather than chug through all nine psalms...

But seriously, wasn't it the very preponderance of nine-lesson feasts, using the same small compass of festal psalms (and ditto at Lauds and Vespers) the reason for the wholesale reordering the cursus of psalms in the Breviary? - for the paucity of ferial days had led to the near-daily repetition of a small number of psalms, with very many of the non-festal ones hardly ever read at all.

It may be argued that the gradual swamping of the ferial by the festal office had frustrated the purpose of the traditional Roman cursus of the psalms, since in most weeks nowhere near all the 150 psalms were being prayed through.

Rubricarius said...

Of course, the ferial Office had been very deliberately obscured by the number of double feasts and votive Offices as they were shorter than the ferial Office and the various supplementaries.

It is unfortunate IMHO that a more sympathetic approach was not taken whereby the Old Psalterium remained and the Calendar had a severe pruning as had happened in 1568.

The old cursus was, in theory, sung at Mattins (1 - 108) and Vespers (109 - 147), Lauds really had fixed psalms with just one variable one and canticle.

The irritating thing about the new system is that the same psalms (and tones) are nearly always used for a given day regardless of whether the Office is of a Martyr, Confessor or Virgin etc. In reality too a not insignificant number of feasts were 'excepted' from the ferial cursus for all or part of their Office e.g. St. Agatha.