"Graduated Solemnity" is a concept my pastor is very fond of. (I think we might have different ideas of what, exactly, it entails, but we don't disagree - just what it means to a pastor and what it means to a choir director require slightly different responses.) In theory, it means you put a little extra into feasts, and a lot extra into Solemnities, to make them stand out from Ordinary Time.
In practice, it means you put a little less into the umpteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, and even less into the third Sunday of Lent. It doesn't mean that you don't do as good a job as you can do, but it does mean that you hold something back, special for the Big Days.
What that looks like in your parish depends on your resources. Of course the basics are all there: your music is always dignified, you always make it your mission to convey The Words, and you bring the highest standards of musicianship you've got to the altar. For the pastor, he might order up incense for the Gospel and Offertory on a Feast, and on top of that, incense at the Entrance and at the Elevation for a Solemnity. (Or maybe in your parish, incense isn't an option because of priestly asthma or lack of competent servers, so he finds something else.) Maybe it's the use of the longer Eucharistic prayers, or singing the Preface and/or the Our Father. Pastors have options.
How can you adjust the music on the principle of Graduated Solemnity, without resorting to phoning it in during Ordinary Time?
- If you're an organist, you can bust out bigger, brighter registrations or alternate harmonization on last verses for the bigger days. (Here is a great collection of accessible Last Verses, many of which can be played without pedals!)
- For cantors, you can vary the setting of the Ordinaries that you use (the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei), using plainer ones for Lent and Advent, and more decorated versions for feasts.*
- If you're a choir, you can add descant lines on feast days, or even a trumpet or other solo instrument for Solemnities if you have an able parishioner or two.
This does mean, though, that you keep these in your pocket for bigger occasions. You have to not do the fanciest versions of everything, all the time, in order to follow this principle. Talk to your pastor (or, if you happen to be a pastor reading this post, talk to your music director) and see if you can work out a plan for adding a little extra something special to your feasts and Solemnities.
There's another side to this as well - I guess you would call it Graduated Sobriety. Solemnity and Sobriety are different principles, though not opposites. In Advent and Lent, the liturgy is already scaled back for us, and we should take a cue from that. The Gloria is omitted, and the Alleluia is replaced in Lent. At our parish, we also scale back in other musical domains - we switch to an a cappella Mass setting, and sing our Responsorial Psalms in unison instead of the harmonies we usually use. No descant lines, no organ postludes or solos, more silence. And on Good Friday, we don't use the organ at all - when the Blessed Sacrament disappears into the side chapel and placed in the Altar of Repose, the organ stops. The choir sings Tantum Ergo a cappella, and we don't turn the organ on again until the Gospel Acclamation in the Easter Vigil (not even to get our notes for Good Friday; I use a pitch pipe). All seven Psalms of the Vigil are sung a cappella, in the dark. It is most dramatic. It is like magic.
Anyway, Lent is upon us. It's good to think about these things early, and start putting them into practice. The more guiding principles we have, the easier our job becomes. We can put more energy into doing the things we choose, instead of into making the decisions.
*Beware, though, of choosing Ordinaries so complex or decorated that congregations can't sing them. The Ordinary is the people's part. Don't take that away from them! (I'll post more on this one in the near future. EDIT: I did!)