Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

( Latin Graduale , from gradus , a step)

Gradual, in English often called Grail, is the oldest and most important of the four chants that make up the choir's part of the Proper of the Mass. Whereas the three others ( Introit, Offertory, and Communion) were introduced later, it fill up the time while something was being done, the Gradual (with its supplement, the Tract or Alleluia ) represents the singing of psalms alternating with readings from the Bible , a custom that is as old as these readings themselves. Like them, the psalms at this place are an inheritance from the service of the Synagogue. Copied from that service, alternate readings and psalms filled up a great part of the first half of the Liturgy in every part of the Christian world from the beginning. Originally whole psalms were sung. In the "Apostolic Constitutions" they are chanted after the lessons from the Old Testament : "The readings by the two ( lectors ) being finished, let another one sing the hymns of David and the people sing the last words after him" ( ta aposticha hypopsalleto , II, 57). This use of whole psalms went on till the fifth century. St. Augustine says: "We have heard first the lesson from the Apostle. Then we sang a psalm. After that the lesson of the gospel showed us the ten lepers healed." (Serm. clxxvi, 1). These psalms were an essential part of the Liturgy, quite as much as the lessons. "They are sung for their own sake; meanwhile the celebrants and assistants have nothing to do but to listen to them" (Duchesne, "Origines du Culte chrétien", 2nd ed., Paris, 1898, p. 161). They were sung in the form of a psalmus responsorius , that is to say, the whole text was chanted by one person — a reader appointed for this purpose. [For some time before St. Gregory I, to sing these psalms was a privilege of deacons at Rome. It was suppressed by him in 595 (Ibid.).] The people answered each clause or verse by some acclamation. In the "Apostolic Constitutions" (above) they repeat his last modulations. Another way was to sing some ejaculation each time. An obvious model of this was Ps. cxxxv with its refrain: "quoniam in æternum misericordia eius"; from which we conclude that the Jews too knew the principle of the responsory psalm. We still have a classical example of it in the Invitatorium of Matins (and the same Ps. xciv in the third Nocturn of the Epiphany ). It appears that originally, while the number of biblical lessons was still indefinite, one psalm was sung after each. When three lessons became the normal custom (a Prophecy, Epistle, and Gospel) they were separated by two psalms. During the fifth century (Duchesne, op. cit., p. 160) the lessons at Rome were reduced to two; but the psalms still remain two, although both are now joined together between the Epistle and Gospel, as we shall see. Meanwhile, as in the case of many parts of the Liturgy, the psalms were curtailed, till only fragments of them were left. This process, applied to the first of the two, produced our Gradual; the second became the Alleluia or Tract.


Gradual comes from the place where it was sung. In the First Roman Ordo (10) it is called Responsum ; Amalarius of Metz (ninth century) calls it Cantus Responsorius ; Isidore (seventh century) Responsorium , "quod uno canente chorus consonando respondet" ("De Eccl. Officiis", I, 8; Ordo Rom. II, 7. Cf. Mabillon, "Musæum Italic." II, 9, note f). This name was also used, as it still is, for the chants after the lessons at Matins ; so the liturgical Responsorium was distinguished later by a special name. The reader who chanted the psalm stood on a higher place, originally on the steps of the ambo. He was not to go right up into the ambo, like the deacon who sang the Gospel, but to stand on the step from which the sub-deacon had read the Epistle (Ordo Roman. I, 10, II, 7: "he does not go up higher, but stands in the same place where the reader stood and begins the Responsorium alone; and all the choir answer and he alone sings the verse of the Responsorium." Cf. Ordo Rom. III, 9, VI, 5). Later in various local churches, when the ambo was disappearing, other places were chose, but the idea of a high place, raised on steps, persists. At Reims, the steps of the choir were used, sometimes a special pulpit was erected. Beleth (twelfth century) says that on ordinary days the cantor stands on the altar-steps, on feasts on the ambo (Rationale, II, P.L., CCII); Durandus a little later writes: "dicitur Graduale a gradibus altaris, eo quod in festivis diebus in gradibus cantatur" (Gradual is so called from the steps of the altar, on which it was sung on holidays. — Rationale, IV, 19). There seems then to be no doubt that the name comes from the place where it was sung; Cardinal Bellarmine 's idea that the gradus in question are those the deacon is climbing for the Gospel while the Gradual is being chanted (De Missâ, II, 16) is a mistake. We have seen that this psalm was not sung to fill up time during the procession to the ambo. Originally the deacon and all the ministers would wait till it was over before beginning their preparation for the Gospel. The older name Responsorium lasted, as an alternative, into the Middle Ages. Durandus uses it constantly and gives a mystic explanation of the word ("Responsorium vero dicitur quia versui vel epistolæ correspondere debet", etc., loc. cit., i.e. "Responsory is so called because it ought to correspond to the verse or epistle.")

It is difficult to say exactly when the Gradual got its present form. We have seen that in St. Augustine's time, in Africa, a whole psalm was still sung. So also St. John Chrysostom alludes to whole psalms sung after the lessons (Hom. In Ps., cxlv); as late as the time of St. Leo I (d. 462), In Rome the psalm seems not yet to have been curtailed: "Wherefore we have sung the psalm of David with united voices, not for our honour, but for the glory of Christ the Lord" (Serm. ii in anniv. Assumpt.). Between this time and the early Middle Ages the process of curtailing brought about our present arrangement.


If we open a Missal, at most of the days in the year (the exceptions will be described below), we find between the Epistle and Gospel a set of verses with some Alleluias marked Graduale . Although the whole text follows this heading, although we usually speak of it all as the Gradual, there are here two quite distinct liturgical texts, namely the first part, which is the old psalmus responsorius (now the Gradual in the strictly correct sense), and the Alleluia with its verse, the Alleluiatic verse ( versus alleluiaticus ). We have seen that these two chants came, originally, one after each of the lessons that preceded the Gospel. Now that we have only one such lesson as a rule (the epistle ), the Gradual and Alleluiatic verse (or its substitute), are sung together. But there are still cases of their separation. In Lent, as we shall see, the Alleluia is replaced by the Tract. A number of Lenten Masses that have kept the old three lessons also keep the old arrangement, by which the Gradual follows the first, the Tract the second (e.g. Wednesdays in the Lenten Ember week and Holy Week ), others (e.g. the Ember Saturday) that have more than three lessons have a Gradual after each of the former ones and a Tract after the Epistle. There are again others (e.g. Tuesday in Holy Week ), in which there is no Tract at all, but only a Gradual after the first lesson. And even when they are sung together their essential separation is still marked by the fact that they have quite different melodies, in different modes. Thus, on the first Advent Sunday the Gradual is in the first and second modes mixed, the Alleluia in the eighth; the next Sunday has a fifth-mode Gradual followed by a first-mode Alleluia, and so on. The Gradual itself always consists of two verses, generally from the same psalm. There are however many cases of their being taken from different psalms ; some, of verses from other books of Scripture (e.g. those for the Immaculate Conception are from Judith); and a few in which the text is not Scriptural. The feast of the Seven Dolours has such verses, "Dolorosa et lacrymabilis es Virgo Maria" . and "Virgo Dei Genitrix" . So also "Benedicta et venerabilis es virgo Maria" for the Visitation (July 2) and other feasts of the B. V. M., and the first verse of the Gradual for Requiems ("Requiem æternam."). The first of these two verses keeps the old name Responsorium , the second is marked V (for versus ). It may be that the first represents the former acclamation of the people (like the Invitatorium of Matins ), and that the second is the fragment of the psalm originally sung by the lector (Gihr, Messopfer, 410; and note 4 from Guyetus, Heortologia, Venice, 1726).

The second chant is normally the versus alleluiaticus (in this case the shorter one). The use of the word Alleluia in the Liturgy is also a very old inheritance from the Synagogue. It became a cry of joy without much reference to its exact meaning in a language no longer understood (as did Hosanna ). Its place in the Liturgy varied considerably. In the Byzantine Rite it comes as the climax of the Cherubic Hymn at the Great Entrance (Brightman, Eastern Liturgies, Oxford, 1896, p. 379); in the Gallican Rite it was sung at the Offertory (Duchesne, Origines du Culte Chrétien, Paris, 1898, p. 160, n. 1). Its place here before the Gospel is peculiar to the Roman Rite. It appears that before the time of St. Gregory I (d. 604) it was sung only during Eastertide (Ep. ix — see Duchesne, loc. cit.; Atchley, Ordo Rom. I, 78- 9). Sozomen goes further: "At Rome, Alleluia is sung once a year, on the first day of the Paschal feast, so that many Romans use this oath : may they hear and sing that hymn !" (Hist. Eccl., VII, xix). This connection with Easter (unknown in the East) afterwards led to additional Alleluias being scattered throughout the Mass in Eastertide (at the Introit, Offertory, Communion, etc.); but its old and essential place for the normal Liturgy is here, where it has displaced the former second psalmus responsorius . It will be noticed that the three great Alleluias that usher in Easter on Holy Saturday come here in the place of the Gradual. The change consists of two Alleluias sung to exactly the same melody. At the end of the second one its last sound (a) is continued in a long and complicated neum. This musical phrase (called variously neuma, jubilatio, jubilus, cantilena ) is a very old and essential element of the Alleluia. A great number of medieval commentators insist on it, and explain it by various mystic reasons. For instance Rupert of Deutz (Rupertus Tuitiensis, O. S. B., twelfth century): "We rejoice rather than sing (jubilamus magis quam canimus) . and prolong the neums, that the mind be surprised and filled with the joyful sound, and be carried thither where the saints rejoice in glory " (De Officiis, I). So also Sicardus of Cremona : "Congrue quoque in Alleluia jubilams [this means sing the neum] ut mens illuc rapiatur ubi Sancti exsultabunt." (Mitrale, III, 3, P.L., CCXIII); Durandus: `Est etiam Alleluia modicum in sermone et multum in pneuma, quia gaudium illud majus est quam possit explicari sermone. Pneuma enim seu jubilus qui fit in fine exprimit gaudium et amorem credentium", that is, "the Alleluia is short in word and long in neum, because that joy is too great to be expressed in words. For the neum or jubilus at the end denotes the joy and love of the faithful" etc. (Rationale, IV, 20; see the whole chapter). The question of the neum is discussed and many authorities quoted in Pothier, "Les Mélodies Grégoriennes d'après la tradition" (Tournai, 1881), xi, 170-9. It should certainly never be omitted. In the case of a figured Gradual a jubilus in figured music should be supplied. After the jubilus of the second Alleluia a verse follows. This verse is by no means so commonly taken from the psalms as the verses of the Gradual, and there are a great many cases, especially on feasts of saints, of a fragment of a Christian poem, or other verse not from the Bible . On St. Lawrence'sfeast (10 Aug.), for example, the Alleluiatic verse is: "Levita Laurentius bonum operatus est, qui per signum crucis cæcos illuminavit" (The Levite Lawrence, who made the blind see by the sign of the Cross, worked a good work). This Alleluiatic verse is a kind of continuation of the jubilus with a text fitted to the long-drawn neums. Then a third Alleluia, the same as the second with its jubilus, ends the chant.

There are two exceptions to this order. The first is when the Alleluia is replaced by the Tract. Since this word began to be looked upon as a special sign of joy, most suitable for Eastertide, it followed, as an obvious corollary, that it should not be sung in times of penance or mourning. There is no such idea in the East, where they sing Alleluia always, even in the Office for the Dead, as was once done at Rome too (Atchley, Ordo Rom. I, 78-9). That Latins sometimes avoid it was one of their many preposterous grievances at the time of Cærularius's schism (Card. Humbert's Dialogus, LVI-LVII, In Will, "Acta et Scripta de Controv. Eccl. Græcæ et Latinæ", Leipzig, 1861, pp. 122-3). In the West, from Septuagesima to Easter (even on Feasts ), on Ember days, most vigils, and at Requiems, the Alleluiatic verse disappears. The Vigils in question generally have only the Gradual (but some have the Alleluia, e.g. the eves of Epiphany, Ascension, Whitsunday ). On the other days the Gradual is followed by the Tract. The Tract ( tractus ) is the second psalm sung between the lessons, which, although later displaced by the Alleluia on most days, has kept its place here. We find it as an alternative to the Alleluia in the First Roman Ordo: "Postquam legerit canto cum cantatoria adscendit et dicit responsum. Ac deinde per alium cantorem, si fuerit tempus ut dicatur Alleluia, concinitur, sin autem tractum, sin minus tantummodo responsum cantatur", i.e. "After the reading (of the Epistle) the cantor ascends with his book and chants the Response. Then, if it be the proper season, another cantor chants the Alleluia ; but if the Alleluia have to be omitted [i.e. in times of penance] the Tract or at times [as still on vigils] only the Response is sung" (ed. Atchley, London, 1905, p. 130, supplemented by Ordo Rom. III). The name "Tract", Psalmus tractus , was given to it, because it was sung straight through without any answer by the choir ( in uno tractu ). This was the special note of the second psalm, that distinguished it from the first psalmus responsorius ( Amalarius of Metz , De eccl. Offic. III, 12; Duchesne, op. cit., 108). Later authors explain the word incorrectly as describing the slow and mournful way in which it was sung ("a trahendo , quia lente et lugubriter cantatur", "from trahendo, because it is sung slowly and mournfully". — De Carop, "Bibl. Liturg.", Pt. I, a. 2, quoted by Gihr, op. cit., 416). Durandus gives this, with other symbolic reasons, for the name: "It is called tract from trahendo because it is sung drawn out ( quia tractum canitur ) and with a harshness of voice and length of words; since it implies the misery and labour of our present life" (Rationale, IV, 21. See the whole chapter). The text of the "Ordo Rom. I" quoted above shows that it was sung from the steps of the ambo, like the Gradual. We have still a few Masses in which the Psalmus tractus has kept its original nature as a whole psalm. On the first Sunday of Lent it is Ps. xc; on Palm Sunday, Ps. xxi; on Good Friday, Ps. cxxxix. Otherwise the Tract too has been shortened to two or three verses. It is nearly always taken from Scripture, but not seldom from other books than the Psalter ; verses from various psalms or other texts often follow one another, connected only by the common idea that runs through them. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in Lent are the old feriæ legitimæ , the official days of penance, that still keep certain peculiarities (in choir, on these days, the Office for the Dead, the penitential and gradual psalms are said). Except on Wednesday in Holy Week they have the same Tract, a prayer for forgiveness from Ps. cii and lxxviii. All feasts that may come between Septuagesima and Easter and all common and votive Masses have a Tract, to be used in that time. Good Friday has two Tracts, one after the Prophecy and one after the lesson from Exodus that takes the place of the Epistle; it has no Gradual. The first Easter Mass on Holy Saturday, among many other peculiarities, keeps so much of the nature of a Lenient vigil that it has, after the great Alleluia and its verse, a Tract. On Whitsun eve the characters of Eastertide and a vigil are combined. It has no Gradual, but first an Alleluia, then a Tract. It will be noticed that each verse in the Tracts is marked V. This calls attention to the nature of the old psalmus tractus that was sung straight through by the cantor. There are no responses for the choir.

The second exception to the usual order is in Eastertide (from the first Easter Mass to the Saturday after Pentecost). During this time the great Alleluia is sung; it has displaced the Gradual altogether. "Rightly during the fifty days in memory of this our most peaceful and happy deed, we are accustomed to sing Alleluia oftener and more joyfully" (St. Bede, II Hom., x). An exception in this season is the Easter octave. The greatest feasts have always kept older arrangements, so on Easter Day and till the Friday following the normal Gradual followed by the Alleluiatic verse (and a sequence) has remained. From White Saturday to the end of paschal time , including all feasts, instead of these two separate chants, one, the great Alleluia, is substituted. Two Alleluias are sung first as a sort of antiphon; the second has a jubilus. Two verses follow, each with an Alleluia and jubilus at the end. These last two Alleluias have the same melody, different from that of the first two. The verses are taken from all parts of the Bible , in the Proprium temporis chiefly from passages in the new Testament about the Resurrection. In this case too feasts and other Masses that may occur in Eastertide are provided with this great Alleluia, as an alternative to be used then. Lastly, five occasions ( Easter, Whitsun, Corpus Christi, the Seven Dolours, and Requiems) have a sequence after the Gradual. These five are all that Pius V's reform left of the innumerable medieval poems once inserted at this place (see SEQUENCES).


In the East, too, there are fragments of the psalms once sung between the lessons, that therefore correspond to our Gradual. In the Byzantine Rite the reader of the epistle first chants "the Psalm of David " and then the "Prokeimenon [ prokeimenon ] of the Apostle ". Both are short fragments of psalms. The Prokeimenon only is now usually read. It is printed before each Epistle in the "Apostolos". After the Epistle the reader should sing Alleluia and another fragment of a psalm (Brightman, op. cit., p. 370-1). This too is now always omitted by both Orthodox and Melchites ; even the Prokeimenon seems to be said only on Sundays and feasts in many churches (Charon, Le Rite byzantin, Rome, 1908, 683-4; but I have found churches where it is still used every day). The Armenian Rite, which is only a modified form of that of Constantinople, has however kept the older arrangement of three lessons. Before the Prophecy a fragment called the Saghmos Jashu (Psalm of dinnertime) is sung, before the Epistle the Mesedi (mesodion) , again a verse or two from a psalm, and before the Gospel the Alelu Jashu (Alleluia of dinner-time) consisting of two Alleluias and a verse (Brightman, op. cit., 425-6). Of the two older rites, that of St. James has the same arrangement as Constantinople (a Prokeimenon before and an Alleluia after the Epistle, Brightman, 36), that of St. mark has a verse and an Alleluia after it (ibid., 118). The Nestorians have hymns (not Biblical texts) before both Epistle and Gospel which they call Turgama , and three verses of psalms each followed by three Alleluias (this group is called Zumara ) after the Epistle (Brightman, 257-260). The Gallican Rite in the time of St. Germanus of Paris (d. 576) had three lessons. The Benedicite canticle (which he calls Benedictio ) was sung after the second, sometimes by boys, sometimes by a deacon (Duchesne, Origines, 185-7). The place of this canticle was not always the same. At times it followed the first lesson (ibid.). The present Ambrosian Rite sometimes has a Prophecy before the Epistle. In this case there follows the Psalmellus , two or three verses from a psalm. After the Epistle, Hallelujah is sung (on feasts of Christ, except in Octaves, twice), then a verse, then again Hallelujah. In Lent, on vigils and fast days, instead of this the Cantus (our Tract) is used. After the Gospel follows the Antiphona post Evangelium , from various books of Scripture (except in Lent and on fast days). And on certain great feasts there is also an antiphon before the Gospel (Rubr. Gen. Miss. Ambros., sect. 11). The Mozarabic Rite has three lessons. After the Prophecy follows a chant marked Psallendo . It has two verses, then a third marked V, then the second is repeated. The priest says: "Silentium facite" and the Epistle is read. Nothing is sung after the Epistle. In the seventh century a Council of Toledo (633) commanded under pain of excommunication that the Gospel should follow the Epistle immediately. After the Gospel follows the Lauda , consisting of an Alleluia, a verse, and a second Alleluia (Missale mixtum, P.L., LXXXV, e.g. for the first Sunday of Advent, col. 110, 112).


The nature and arrangement of the chants that form the Gradual in the Roman Rite have already been explained, so that little need be added here about its use. As a result of the reaction of low Mass upon high Mass (by which everything sung by anyone else must also be read by the priest at the altar ), the celebrant at high Mass reads the Gradual with the Alleluia, Tract, or Sequence, according to the form for the day, immediately after he has read the Epistle and at the same place (this is just as at low Mass ). As soon as the sub-deacon has finished chanting the Epistle, the Gradual (of course, again, in the complete form for the day) is sung by the choir. There is now no rule for the distribution of its parts. All may be sung straight through by the whole choir. It is however usual (partly for the sake of artistic effect) to divide the texts so that some are sung by one or two cantors. A common arrangement is for the cantors to sing the first words of the Gradual (to the asterisk in the choir-books), the choir continues, the cantors sing the versus and the first Alleluia, the choir the second, the cantors the Alleluiatic verse, and the choir the last Alleluia. Or, all Alleluias are sung by the cantors, the choir only joining in the neum. Similar arrangements may be made easily for the Tract or the great Alleluia in Eastertide. Normally it is all sung to plain-song and, now that we have the Vatican edition, to the form in that book. But there is no law about this, and the Gradual may be sung to any figured music that satisfies the principles of the "Motu Proprio" of 22 Nov., 1903. There is a useful arrangement of all Propers of the Mass in simple figured music by Tozer (New York, 2 vols., 1906) against which the only objection is that the composer has ignored the jubilus at the end of the Alleluia.


The name Gradual ( Graduale Romanum ) is also used for the book that contains the music sung by the choir at Mass. The name comes from this most important chant, but the book contains the plain-song music for the Ordinary (this part is also published alone with the title Ordinarium Missæ or Kyriale ) and all the Propers for the year. This book is one of the three parts of the old Roman Antiphonarium. Originally all the chants of the choir were contained in that. But by the ninth century it was already divided into three, the Graduale or Cantatorium for Mass, and the Responsiale and Antiphonarium (in a stricter sense) for the Office ( Amalarius of Metz, De Ordine Antiphonarii, P.L. XCIX, in prolog.). The history of the book forms part of that of the development of plain-song. An authentic edition (the Medicæa) was issued at Rome in 1614. It is now supplanted by the Vatican edition (1908), of which reproductions are being issued by various publishers.

More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed between 1907 and 1912 in fifteen hard copy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Subscribe to Catholic OnlineYouTube Channel

the FEED
by Catholic Online

  • Prayer For Courage HD Video
  • UPDATE: Did the U.S. military actually know they were bombing the ...
  • Daily Readings for Thursday, November 26, 2015
  • St. John Berchmans: Saint of the Day for Thursday, November 26, 2015
  • How to balance compassion with security concerns with influx of ...
  • The Miracle Prayer HD Video
  • BIGGER THAN ISIS - There's a hidden power behind ISIS and it's so big ...

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Daniel 5:1-6, 13-14, 16-17, 23-28
1 King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for his noblemen, a thousand of ... Read More

Psalm, Daniel 3:62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67
62 Bless the Lord, sun and moon, praise and glorify him for ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 21:12-19
12 'But before all this happens, you will be seized and persecuted; you ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for November 25th, 2015 Image

St. Catherine of Alexandria
November 25: St. Catherine of Alexandria, Virgin and Martyr ... Read More