Music for Easter (Saturday Vigil and Easter Sunday)


The Easter Vigil is the greatest event of the Church’s year, the celebration of the most dramatic and exciting moment in human history. So it should be celebratory, dramatic, exciting.  And it is long. Not all parishes do all seven OT readings with their accompanying psalms, but I don’t know which you will choose, so we have settings for all of them.  But even if you only do a few, with a full Mass (including the Gloria, of course) to follow, and starting at night, this is a musical marathon (which I have written about here). I have tried, then, to give you lots of variety to keep people interested, but also not to make the music for Easter too strenuous to sing. Above all, though, I have been striving after joy, because it seems to me that it is the hallmark of the Easter readings.

Not just Psalms

We’ve got some of the best words in the Bible available to sing here, and not just Psalms but also Canticles, bits out of Exodus and Isaiah, and there are even alternatives to choose from for individual readings.  Choose early, because then you can concentrate on what you are actually singing.  I have done compacts wherever possible, to limit the sheer bulk of your folders for the Vigil, but some of the texts are too irregular to compact and I had to give up or try separating out the instruments.

Vigil Readings : salvation history in a nutshell

We start with the Creation (Pss 103/104 or 32/33) and canter through the whole of salvation history so fast that it’s not surprising we get a bit out of breath.  I love the creation psalms, there are lots of them, where we tell God all about the wonderful things he made (which he knows already, but it’s like telling your children how beautiful and clever they are, or your husband that you love him.  Just because you both know something already doesn’t stop you repeating it).  These psalms give me a chance to play with the music, to make the water ripple and the birds sing, to go up for the mountains and go down for the depths of the sea.  It may be unsubtle, but it feels right.

Then there’s Abraham and Isaac, and the ghastly choice Abraham faces, to sacrifice his son, his only son, whom he loves, as God says to him, piling up the facts which make it so ghastly… but then God stops him,  Abraham unties Isaac and they go home rejoicing.   We are left remembering how God had to sacrifice his son, his only son, whom he loved, and he had to go through with it, all because of us.  So the psalm following this reading is a more reflective one (15/16), with words of comfort in the middle verse.

Then the crossing of the Red Sea, so exciting, and the wonderful canticle after it (Exodus 15), all trumpets and triumph.  I really mustn’t go on about all the readings and psalms [in fact, I now do here], or the Webmaster will make acid comments about writing a book rather than a blog, but my other favourites are the Isaiah canticle, where you can hear the water being heaved up out of the well, and the yearning deer after the Seventh Reading, where the CAN convention of using both psalm numbers means we have the longest psalm label on record (41,42/42,43).  This is a brand new CAN psalm, and I was aiming for yearning, but the rhythm of the response words was too strong, so we definitely have a leaping deer here, but still yearning as it bounds.

During Mass

After all this excitement, we have Psalm 117 with a simple Alleluia response.  This psalm comes up a lot over the Easter season, in various permutations, but this is the first time, so I’ve gone for a sober joy here, the great news is still sinking in.  It’s simple, so everyone can join in, but strongly rhythmic, and it’s a three-fold Alleluia as it replaces the usual Alleluia before the Gospel.  No more Lent Gospel Acclamations till next year!

Easter Sunday, Mass during the day

This is the same psalm as in the night, but with a different Response, although you can of course substitute the triple Alleluia version.  I do feel the mood is different now, daylight and daffodils instead of darkness and bonfires, and I would take it a bit faster now that everyone has had a sleep and is fresh again.  I have a very soft spot for this psalm response, as our youngest son was born during Eastertide, and his father had to go off to church that morning leaving me and the very new baby in the hospital, and sing it as cantor.  New life, new hope; indeed ‘this day was made by the Lord; we rejoice and are glad.’  Happy Easter (alleluia alleluia).

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe composes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines. She writes about what comes up in the process, and blogs for The Tablet.