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This article is about the musical term. See Antiphon the orator of ancient Greece.

An antiphon (Greek ἀντίφωνον, ἀντί "opposite" + φωνή "voice") is a response, usually sung in Gregorian chant, to a psalm or some other part of a religious service, such as at Vespers or at a Mass. This meaning gave rise to the 'antiphony', a call and response style of singing. .


A piece of music which is performed by two semi-independent choirs interacting with one another, often singing alternate musical phrases, is known as 'antiphonal'. Antiphon can also be used outside of a strict musical or liturgical context to mean a more general response. When used in this way the word often maintains its religious connotation. In particular, 'antiphonal psalmody' is the singing or musical playing of psalms by alternating groups of performers.


The peculiar mirror structure of the Hebrew psalms renders it probable that the antiphonal method originated in the services of the ancient Israelites. According to the historian Socrates of Constantinople, its introduction into Christian worship was due to Ignatius of Antioch (died 107), who in a vision had seen the angels singing in alternate choirs Antiphons have remained an integral part of the worship in the Greek Orthodox church and the Eastern Catholic churches.

In the Latin Church it was not practiced until more than two centuries later and have been credited to Ambrose, bishop of Milan. He, like Gregory the Great, has been credited with compiling 'antiphonaries', or collections of works suitable for antiphonal singing (also known as an 'antiphonal'), which are still in use in the Roman Catholic Church today.

Polyphonic votive antiphons

Polyphonic votive antiphons emerged in England in the fourteenth century as a setting of a text honouring the Virgin Mary, but separate from the mass and office, often after compline. Towards the end of the fifteenth century they began to be written by English composers as expanded settings for as many as nine parts with increasing complexity and vocal range. The largest collection of such antiphons is in the late fifteenth century Eton choirbook. It is as a result of this tradition that antiphony is particularly common in the Anglican musical tradition, where the choir divides into two equal halves on opposite sides of the quire as Decani and Cantoris.

Greater Advent antiphons

The Greater Advent or O Antiphons are antiphons used at daily prayer in the evenings of the last days of Advent in various liturgical Christian traditions. Each antiphon is a name of Christ, one of his attributes mentioned in Scripture. In the Roman Catholic tradition, they are sung or recited at Vespers from December 17 to December 23. In the Church of England they have traditionally been used as antiphons to the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. More recently they have found a place in primary liturgical documents throughout the Anglican Communion, including the Church of England's Common Worship liturgy. Use of the O Antiphons was preserved in Lutheranism at the German Reformation and continues to be used in Lutheran churches.

Polychoral antiphony

When two or more groups of singers sing in alternation the style of music can also be called 'polychoral'. Specifically, this term is usually applied to music of the late Renaissance and early Baroque. Polychoral techniques are a definitive characteristic of the music of the Venetian school, exemplified by the works of Giovanni Gabrieli; this music is often known as the Venetian polychoral style. The Venetian polychoral style was an important innovation of the late Renaissance, and this style, with its variations as it spread across Europe after 1600, helped to define the beginning of the Baroque era. Polychoral music was not limited to Italymarker in the Renaissance; it was popular in Spain and Germany, and there are examples from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from composers as diverse as Hector Berlioz, Igor Stravinsky and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

See also


  1. E. Foley and M. Paul, Worship music: a concise dictionary (Liturgical Press, 2000), p. 18.
  2. J. McKinnon, Music in early Christian literature (Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 10.
  3. A.C. Zenos, ed., 'The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus,' book VI, chapter VIII, vol 2, p 144. In A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, P. Schaff and H. Wace, eds (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957).
  4. G. Wainwright, K. B. W. Tucker. The Oxford history of Christian worship (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 244.
  5. R. H. Fritze and W. Baxter Robison, Historical dictionary of late medieval England, 1272-1485 (Greenwood, 2002), p. 363.
  6. H. Benham, John Taverner: His Life and Music (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2003), pp. 48-9.
  7. R. Bray, 'England i, 1485-1600' in J. Haar, European Music, 1520-1640 (Boydell, 2006), p. 498.
  8. A. Nocent and M. J. O'Connell, The liturgical year (Liturgical Press, 1977), p. 162.
  9. A. Nocent and M. J. O'Connell, The liturgical year (Liturgical Press, 1977), p. 163-80.
  10. J. H. Blunt, The Annotated Book of Common Prayer: Being an Historical, Ritual, and Theological Commentary on the Devotional System of the Church of England (Rivingtons, 1866), p. 76.
  11. C. B. Brown, Singing the Gospel: Lutheran hymns and the success of the Reformation (Harvard University Press, 2005), p. 61.
  12. C. Parrish, A Treasury of Early Music: Masterworks of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Baroque Era (Courier Dover Publications, 2000), p. 138.
  13. Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Oxford University Press.


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