Holy Week is Awesome (and so is All This Music) - NOW with links to EIGHTEEN pieces of music

(This post took me days, and I realize that I am now posting it a little too late to be especially useful, but once it's on the Internet, it will be here forever - or at least until next year. Plus hey, some people may still be scrambling to figure this out! Who's going to help them if I won't?)

Holy Week is the pinnacle of the music director's year. It's an incredibly taxing undertaking for a chorister or organist, let alone a choir director, and so it should be! This is the Big Game, the Final Exam, the Master Work for the liturgical musician. It would be pretty stupid if it was an easy toss. Suitable music can make the difference between a deeply moving experience and just another week before Easter with extra long gospel readings, so let's dig in. You can skip between sections if you're looking for a particular liturgy, I've included all of them! 

Palm Sunday

I'm going to assume that you're preparing for the Solemn Entrance form 1. (This is definitely something that should be confirmed exhaustively with your priest.) The faithful gather outside the church, and at the appointed time, Hosanna Filio David is sung (in English or in Latin). Then the palm branches are blessed and distributed, the Gospel is proclaimed, and the faithful process into the church behind the altar servers, deacon and priest, while singing the antiphon Pueri Hebraeorum or "other suitable chants in honor of Christ the King" - the classic standard is All Glory Laud and Honor,* a hymn whose only problem is that this is the only day of the year we get to sing it. (Hot tip - sing in unison as long as you are mingled with the procession.)

Where in the procession does the choir go? This depends on your setup, and where the choir normally sits during the liturgy. I usually try to sprinkle a few choir members into the crowd to support the singing, while also sending a scout or two in the side door, to ensure that the singing at the back of the procession and the singing in the front of the procession are in the same place and key. If your celebrant is up for all the bells and whistles, he will incense the altar while the faithful continue to file in and take their seats. Singing should continue until everyone is settled. If you are confident of your choir's ability to maintain their pitch while walking, have the organ kick in with the refrain once enough choir members are present - it is then that I have my choir break out into parts. (Hot tip: print copies of Hosanna Filio David with All Glory Laud and Honour on the back so that your choir only needs to bring one page outside with them.)

The rest of the Mass proceeds as normal, except that there is no Penitential Rite; and with the extra long Gospel reading, the GIRM specifies that the homily should be unusually brief, letting the Passion reading speak for itself. How nice. Today's the Day for all that great Passiontide music you've been saving up. I love to end with an a cappella recessional, such as What Wondrous Love is This, or Were You There - a hymn I personally don't care for, but every time I sing it, at least five people thank me for it afterwards. I have to admit, it does make for a contemplative ending for the Passion reading.

(If you are preparing for Solemn Entrance 2, where the branches are blessed in another part of the church, the same order is followed - however, if the appointed place for the blessing of the branches is near the altar, you can reverse the antiphons: sing All Glory Laud and Honour as a regular processional hymn, then the shorter Hosanna as the priest and servers move from the branches to the altar. In the Simple Entrance, Mass proceeds in the usual way; however, if you aren't singing the proper entrance antiphon, you should at least take care to sing an entrance hymn specifically commemorating the Entrance into Jerusalem.)

*I have seen opinion divided into two camps regarding the proper way to sing All Glory, Laud and Honour: on the one side, that the tune, as written, is complete, and should be ended at the conclusion of the fifth verse; on the other side, that the repeated lines at the start of the verse should be treated as a refrain and repeated at the end of the hymn. Without any rational argument on my side, I have always chosen the latter side, probably just because that is the way I Have Always Done It, literally as long as I can remember.

A Note on the Triduum:

The Triduum is made up of one, epic, three-day liturgy. There is no dismissal after Holy Thursday or Good Friday, no greeting on Good Friday or Easter Vigil. We are called to experience the Passion, Death and Resurrection in the exact same time frame as Jesus and his disciples, including the kind of empty anticipation of Holy Saturday. Do not practice in the church during Triduum, and encourage all musicians to assemble and leave in as close to silence as possible. Leave your books behind between liturgies.

Holy Thursday

This Mass has several "extras," with some significant logistical obstacles. It's also the first in a long series of hours of singing, so try to take it easy at the start. Save triumphant descant lines for the latter half of the vigil, and let the organ do the heavy lifting. (Hot tip: since this Mass is in the evening, it can be helpful to drink a half glass of red wine with dinner. It relaxes and soothes the throat. Not more than that, though, as you don't want to be too relaxed, if you know what I mean.)

Begin with an antiphon or hymn specifically oriented towards the triumph of the cross. We sing Lift High the Cross (which, unhelpfully, is not public domain so I can't link to it here), for reasons stated above - the organ certainly carries this one. The words match up with the text of the Entrance Antiphon admirably. There is a Gloria sung at this Mass, don't let it take you by surprise! If you've been using a Mass setting that doesn't have one all through Lent, make sure everyone knows that you are doing something different this time.

After the Homily, the priest washes the feet of twelve parishioners. This can take a long time or a short time, depending on the age and mobility level of your priest. There are seven antiphon options that can be sung - they are short, so you can alternate antiphon - choral piece - antiphon - choral piece - antiphon etc to fill the time. You should also use these antiphons as inspiration texts for what music you choose. The fact that the missal gives seven options here should indicate that Words Are Important, so don't just default to filling time with the organ.

Mass proceeds from here as usual until after Communion. After the vessels have been purified, a ciborium of hosts for the next day is left on the altar - the tabernacle is left empty. After the Prayer After Communion, the priest puts incense in the thurible, kneels before the altar and incenses the Blessed Sacrament three times. (O Salutaris Hostia may be sung here.) Then the priest rises, puts on a white humeral veil, covers his hands with the veil, and picks up the ciborium. He carries it in procession around the church, accompanied by the altar servers with candles and incense, and then places it in a prepared place in the church, set apart from the main tabernacle (if your church has the capacity for such an arrangement). During this procession, the chant Pange Lingua (or a metrical arrangement) is to be sung. Don't just sing it all the way through though, that would be too easy! The fifth and sixth verses (beginning with "Tantum ergo" or "Down in adoration falling") constitute their own hymn, which should not be started until the procession has reached its end, and the ciborium is placed in the Altar of Repose. This means that the director must keep an eye on the procession while directing, indicating to the choir whether they should continue with the first four verses in rotation (possibly alternating English with Latin; I have included both in the music linked above, to give you maximum flexibility) or move to the fifth. Depending on the location of the Altar of Repose, you may need a spotter in the congregation to relay signals. Once the procession is completed, the organ should stop, the final two verses being sung a cappella. The faithful (including the choir!) depart in silence. Make sure all of your announcements regarding assembly time for Good Friday have been made already.

Good Friday

The first challenge of Good Friday comes long before the day - in ensuring that you have singers at all. In a strange and unexpected twist of fate, most people in this country don't get Good Friday off work. I am fortunate to have many choir members who work for  Catholic schools, so my choir is usually at or close to full strength, but for the less fortunate, I will include tips for a solo cantor as well as tips for the choir.

Good Friday does not have a Mass. It is called the Solemn Commemoration of the Lord's Passion, and it most properly referred to as "the Good Friday Liturgy" for short. The theme of the day is sober awe. The liturgy begins and ends in silence, with no greeting and no dismissal. This is emphatically not a day for sentimental music. The organ should only be used "as necessary to support the singing," which I have chosen to interpret in my parish (which is good about singing) as "not at all." I don't even turn it on to get our pitches; instead, we use a pitch pipe. Total shutdown of the organ is not a requirement; however, it should not be used as an instrumental time-filler. Silence is the preferable option if you don't have enough vocal music. Besides the Psalm, there are only two places where a cantor or choir will sing: the Veneration of the Cross, and the distribution of Communion (since it is not a Mass, there are no ordinaries to worry about).

Of these two, the Veneration is the more complicated. First of all, when the cross which is to be venerated is taken out, the priest or deacon will intone the words "Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Salvation of the World." (Three times, ascending a half-step each time.) Depending on the skill level of your particular minister, he may or may not do this correctly, or recognizably, or consistently. You may be obliged to come up with the notes of your response on the spot. If you can get a chance to practice it with him beforehand, so much the better, but if not, be on your toes. The important thing for you is to make your response the same every time. By the end, everyone will be with you.

Following this, the Reproaches, the hymn Crux Fidelis (Here with the English translation from the missal, adjusted so that important words are emphasized), and/or the antiphon Crucem tuam adoramus ("or another suitable song") are to be sung. The first of these is to be assigned to two choirs (or cantors), so is best left for another year if one cantor is all you have. Crux Fidelis, on the other hand, is no mere consolation prize! It's a bit of a beast though, with some large intervals. It has a range of just over a full octave, so choose your starting pitch well. After one or more of these options have been exhausted, More Passiontide Music! (For the choir to have the chance to venerate the cross, use the same strategies as receiving Communion.)

Veneration of the Cross gives way to an abbreviated Communion Rite, in which the fraction is omitted since no host was consecrated during the liturgy, and hence there is no Agnus Dei. The Communion Antiphon for the day is Adoramus Te, Christe, and after that, More Passiontide Music! The rest is silence, as at the end of Holy Thursday. (Hot tip: remember that you and your singers will be fasting, so go easy on yourselves. If you aren't visible, it's no scandal if you decided not to genuflect over and over and over during the prayers of the universal church, in order to save energy for the Crux Fidelis.)

Easter Vigil

The source from which all our liturgies flow, the Mother of All Liturgies; definitely the most dramatic night in the church year. Or eh, I went to church at night and it was long. You decide.

The biggest thing that the music affects: the Psalms. Find out nice and far ahead how many of the seven readings will be done at your parish, and exert any influence you might have to make sure it is seven. Everyone is happier when it is seven. When there are seven readings, there are seven psalms. If your pastor has a single dramatic bone in his body, these readings and psalms will be done in the dark. Please do not allow your choir members to use their phones as flashlights when they sing - they are much too powerful and will illuminate the entire church. I have had pretty consistent good luck finding small dim booklights at the dollar store, and even a few of them have lasted, sitting in the cabinet in the choir loft, for years. Don't permit anyone to use them to read along with the readings - this night, we listen. The only cue you need is "the Word of the Lord." (Hot tip: have the verses for the psalms done by cantors for this one - the words will be easier to hear for the faithful who don't have light to read along, and they can be done at a slightly quickened pace. All the choir needs to learn are the responses, which they might end up being able to do without any light, especially after a few years of doing the same ones.)

Following the seventh reading (with accompanying psalm and prayer), the Gloria. Again with the drama, this is the moment when the lights come on. Glorious! We see the church all decked out with Easter Lilies and gold cloth, the choir is singing, the bells are ringing - this is the stuff that roots in our hearts to shine out in our darker moments to give us hope. Then there is the lengthened Gospel Acclamation, three verses! If a cantor is managing this task, he can use the Solemn Alleluia just for this occasion, repeated three times, rising a half-step each time. This echoes the singing of "Behold the Wood of the Cross" on Good Friday, and then "the Light of Christ" during the procession into the darkened church at the start of the vigil. Following this acclamation, the verses are sung with the choir responding "Alleluia" either in the same tone or one more familiar to your parish.

If your parish is fortunate enough to be blessed with catechumens being baptized, you have an extra bonus: a litany of saints! The Missal states that this litany is to be sung by two cantors - which is news to me, I just learned it when preparing for this post - but gives no guidance as to how it is to be split.

Even if there are no baptisms, there is still a blessing of the water to be used in a Sprinkling Rite. This Rite and the renewal of baptismal promises takes the place of the Creed. The proper thing to be sung here is Vidi Aquam (or, in English, I Saw Water). If you choose the Latin, then at least read out the translation before or after. I like to do both - women sing in English, then men sing in Latin. ("Another chant that is baptismal in character may also be sung." Yeah, but why?)

That takes care of your extraordinary duties. After this, it is only your ordinary duties, but after hours and hours of singing. It's taxing, glorious, wonderful, and exhausting. If you're off the hook for liturgies the next day, you may as well go out with a bang.

Don't forget a triumphant Easter organ postlude!

Easter Sunday

Well, if you've gotten here, you're either a physical marvel or this is the one Easter Liturgy you are in charge of. If you were on duty during the previous week, be kind to yourself. Eat a good breakfast, leave the Easter Candy and egg hunting for your kids until Easter Monday (my family's favourite Easter tradition), and choose hymns that don't strain you too much. Fortunately, you only have two extra items in your Easter Sunday liturgy: the Sprinkling Rite and the Sequence. 

Music for the Sprinkling Rite, as noted above, is the Vidi Aquam during Easter season (or in English, I Saw Water). Make sure you sort the timing out with the celebrant before Mass, as it can replace either the Penitential Rite (the more common option) or the Creed.

The Sequence is a holdover from ancient days. In the Novus Ordo, there are four Masses in the year for which there is a Sequence - Easter, Pentecost, Corpus Christi and Our Lady of Sorrows. The Sequences for Easter, Pentecost and Corpus Christi are not optional - they are to be read if they are not sung, but they are So Much Better when sung! It comes between the second reading and the Gospel Acclamation, and should be begun quickly, so that no one stands up, thinking that you are starting the acclamation. The Easter Sequence also has a common metrical setting which could be substituted, as the words are so close. However, the chant has a noble simplicity that raises the solemnity level of the liturgy in a way that Just An Extra Hymn doesn't. I link to both; I recommend the chant. If you have the resources, this is one text that is definitely elevated by having a solo man's voice sing the text "Speak, Mary," etc, then having a solo woman's voice sing Mary's part. Usually a more theatrical style distracts from the liturgy, but it's a-OK right here.

That's it! After this, eat a big dinner, put your feet up, take a nap, listen to Handel's Messiah at full volume, whatever makes you feel like a new creation. Congratulations, you survived!


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