Music for Holy Week and Easter

My recent forays into Liturgical music op-ed writing aside, the real purpose of this blog is to provide some ideas and suggestions for Lectionary-appropriate songs each Sunday.

But (and I know this will disappoint my faithful readers) I’m not going to provide a handy list for Holy Week. Here’s why:
Mostly, you need to do whatever you did last year.

Part of what makes the liturgical cycle of seasons work is familiarity. Once again we come back to the familiar customs of Advent, the old Christmas songs from childhood, that Taize piece we always do on Good Friday. Music from last year (and the year before, and the year before, and the year before) is what makes Palm Sunday feel like Palm Sunday. That’s the whole point (and power) of traditions.

So- Holy Week is not the time to be innovative. If you tried to be innovative last year, hopefully you learned your lesson- go back to the music they were doing before they hired you.

Should you do anything different at all?
Yes, but tread carefully. Don’t replace too many things. And if you’re going to spend your social capital on changes, make sure it’s worth it, and that you’re changing to something that will last (which probably means replacing the habitual piece with the more traditional piece, not with some cool, new piece).

In case you feel like the habitual Holy Week music in your parish is lacking, here are a few ideas for (mostly) traditional, imminently Catholic pieces you really should think about incorporating into your existing Holy Week repertoire, along with some thoughts about each day…

Palm Sunday

First of all, if anyone suggests doing “Hosanna, hey-sanna” from Jesus Christ Superstar, report him to this guy.

Other than that, nothing in particular for Palm Sunday, except a list of things I’ve experienced which I don’t like. But I try to stay positive here.

Holy Thursday

Please, please, please do a traditional procession of the Blessed Sacrament and sing “Pange Lingua.” In Latin. This is a “Catholic DNA” moment, and it should not be denied to anyone. It’s lovely. And important.

And if anyone complains that it’s long and boring, I have two words for them. “Jesus wept.”

Moreover- most parishes are not all Solemn High Mass with copes and veils and long vested processions most of the time. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that fact. But we need to see it at least a few times a year so that we understand where we came from and what we’re about. The procession, the exposition, the ritual stripping of the altar- all these things help us remember that millions of the faithful have done them before us. More than remember- when we do them we come to understand that we are not just repeating their actions but directly participating in them. This is the “Hermeneutic of Continuity” alive and well in even the most modern parish.

And by the way, while we’re on Holy Thursday. Don’t get too creative with the Washing of the Feet. There are several excellent options in use around the country. Having the priest wash the feet of the Elect or a cross-sample of the parish is probably the easiest. Having everyone wash everyone else’s feet is really wonderful, if quite long and logistically taxing.

Turning the foot washing into a mini-play, complete with a newly written text that highlights the meaning of these simple gestures is not one of the excellent options. Don’t do it.

Good Friday

I know it takes longer to get everyone through the veneration line, but please- only have one cross. When you have three crosses (to save time), you’re asking everyone who sits in those sections to come and venerate the thieves’ crosses. Not good.

Unless your Bishop has told you not to (apparently they do that sometimes) I’d recommend reinstating the Reproaches (unless you’re already doing them, then no need to reinstate).

If you’re not familiar, the Reproaches are a series of statements (spoken, chanted, or sung) in the voice of Jesus, asking us, his people, why we have treated him so poorly. “Oh my people, what have I done to you? Or how have I offended you?”

They act as a ritualistic examination of conscience. For a number of poor reasons they have fallen out of use, even though they are still part of the ritual of Good Friday. For more information on the Reproaches, check out the excellent article on them from my traditionalist friend, Jeffrey Tucker.

Because of the mistaken notion that the Reproaches are anti-Semitic (they’re not- but I don’t want to get into right now), the kinds of people who write contemporary church music tend to not do them, or even know about them. So I can point to no contemporary settings of this text. While I’m considering writing just such a setting for next year, it really is okay- the Good Friday service is a time for solemn chanting if there ever was one. (And heck- if you do the reproaches in Latin, no one will be able to think they’re anti-Semitic, since the most sensitive liberals in the room won’t know what you’re singing).

The Easter Vigil

First of all, sing the Exsultet. The chant version in the Sacramentary is really nice.

If your priest can sing, have him sing David Haas’ setting of the Blessing over the water, from the Who Calls You by Name collection. It’s fantastic.

Beyond that- I encourage you to get boisterous, get excited, get riled up… but don’t get too liturgically creative. Spend your energy practicing your songs and making them awesome. Spend your energy getting instrumentalists to come and rehearse. Spend your energy building a huge bonfire outside. Do not spend your energy trying to figure out where, other than the ambo, you can read the Genesis reading from. Or how to break up the Exodus reading into several parts. Or how to incorporate dancers into the invented Water Processional.

I’m not even saying any of those things are inherently bad or anti-good liturgy… if you had infinite time and resources. But you don’t. And every minute you spend over there trying to figure out how to move lectors around or getting the timing right with the lights and the dancers, is one less minute you can spend making sure that your choir full of white people claps on beats 2 and 4, sings in tune, and keeps up with the harpist. (You did hire a harpist, didn’t you?)

Back to music- I have to say that, for me, the music of Easter will always be the music of David Haas. Because of his love of, and deep involvement with, the RCIA process, David has written a number of incredible pieces of music for Easter. Especially check out “God is Alive,” “Christ is Risen, Shout Hosanna,” and “Alleluia! Let Us Rejoice!” His litany of Saints is pretty good, too, although there are better ones.

I’m not going to suggest any particular Mass setting. I suggest you do the one that is most familiar to the crowd of people who don’t come the rest of the year.

Easter Sunday

Do not omit the sequence.

That is all.

Easter Vespers

The celebration of the Triduum rightfully concludes with Solemn Vespers Sunday evening. Not many people are going to come, but you should do it anyway. I would chant the whole thing, given the option, with a liberal dose of Latin. Break out your Breviaries and have at it.

2 thoughts on “Music for Holy Week and Easter

  1. I know that the Triduum is over at this point, but I think it’s worth mentioning Dan Schutte’s Glory in the Cross. It is an excellent song to unite the Triduum. The Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil) is actually liturgically a single liturgy, so this song unites it quite well. It has verses for each day.

    It serves as a perfect Gathering Song on Holy Thursday, keep it simple, Organ w/ Violin or woodwinds, or Piano with percussion and guitars. Sing it during the veneration (perhaps after the reproaches) or as the Communion song on Good Friday with just solo piano and perhaps a flute. Sing as the recessional at the Easter Vigil, pulling out all the stops with Organ, brass, and Timp. The contrast between the three days and the three versions of this song is striking and is one of my favorite parts of the Triduum liturgies in my parish.

  2. That’s a great piece- and I’m all for finding things that can serve to unite the Three Days.

    (Incidentally- I got to meet Dan last year. Neat guy. He inspired me to start this blog as a way to start getting people to hear my music. So far, there hasn’t been much of that- but it’s early yet.
    Anyway- Thanks Dan.)

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