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An antiphon (Greek ἀντίφωνον, ἀντί "opposite" and φωνή "voice") is a short chant in Christian ritual, sung as a refrain. Antiphons are Psalm-texted. Their form was favored by St Ambrose and so they feature prominently in Ambrosian chant, but they occur widely in Gregorian chant as well. They may be used during Mass, for the Introit, the Offertory or the Communion. They may also be used in the Liturgy of the Hours, typically for Lauds or Vespers.
They should not be confused with Marian antiphons or processional antiphons.
A refrain is needed when a chant consists of alternating verses (usually sung by a cantor) and responds (usually sung by the congregation).
The looser term antiphony is generally used for any call and response style of singing, such as the kirtan or the sea shanty. Antiphonal music is that performed by two choirs in interaction, often singing alternate musical phrases. Antiphonal psalmody is the singing or musical playing of psalms by alternating groups of performers. The term “antiphony” can also refer to a choir-book containing antiphons.
The 'mirror' structure of Hebrew psalms renders it probable that the antiphonal method was present in the services of the ancient Israelites. According to the historian Socrates of Constantinople, antiphony was introduced into Christian worship by Ignatius of Antioch (died 107), who saw a vision of two choirs of angels.
Antiphons have remained an integral part of the worship in the Byzantine and Armenian Rite. The practice was not found in the Latin Church until more than two centuries later. Ambrose and Gregory the Great, who are known for their contributions to the formulation of Gregorian chant, are credited with 'antiphonaries', collections of works suitable for antiphon, which are still used in the Roman Catholic Church today.
Polyphonic Marian antiphons emerged in England in the 14th century as settings of texts honouring the Virgin Mary separately from the mass and office, often after Compline. Towards the end of the 15th century, English composers produced expanded settings up to nine parts, with increasing complexity and vocal range. The largest collection of such antiphons is the late 15th century Eton Choirbook. As a result, antiphony remains particularly common in the Anglican musical tradition: the singers often face each other, placed in the quire's Decani and Cantoris.
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.
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 periods. 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 Italy in the Renaissance. It was popular in Spain and Germany and there are examples from the 19th and 20th centuries, from composers as diverse as Hector Berlioz, Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, and Karlheinz Stockhausen.