Music for your wedding : things worth considering

Congratulations! Once you decide to get married, there are lots of things you want to do but I’m only going to talk about planning the music at your wedding service, specifically the bits with words.  Your going in and coming out music you need to discuss with your organist, and if you want the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba and Widor’s Toccata, just ask; organists love a challenge!  Only one point: it’s actually quite difficult to walk sedately to a 3/4 rhythm, so however much you love it, keep the Blue Danube for the reception, or you may find yourself waltzing out.

Planning for the personal

I’ve only had one wedding, but I’ve sung at a lot of them, and watched the planning of several others (big family), so I now feel that if I did get married again, I have a clearer idea of how to make the wedding service as personal as possible (although, reassuringly, I wouldn’t change anything about mine).  Some of the service is fixed, but there are plenty of places where you have to choose between alternatives.  What mood do you want to create?  What story do you want to tell?  These are in fact liturgical questions, and the words and music you choose are very important.

The psalm for your wedding : the official options by country

We have special requests for wedding psalms all through the year, but they tend to peak in the summer, so this year the Webmaster and I decided to think ahead, and we’ve put together a full set of the psalms listed in the UK and Ireland (one set) and the US and Philippines (another set)  Lectionaries for Weddings. I haven’t been able to track down the OZ or Canada equivalents on line, so I would be really grateful if anyone else could send me the list, as experience shows it may well not be the same.  It is actually quite funny to compare the different national missals in my possession.  The US one has a set of three possible wedding services at the back (and doesn’t include the words of the Hail Mary at any point).   The UK one has lots of Penitential Rites, and Evening Prayer out of the Divine Office.  The OZ one just has room for a selection of prayers because it’s in slightly bigger print (for which I am grateful).   The Canada one is based on the US version but unhelpfully takes out the wedding section, and has an Overview of the Catechism.  As they say, go figure.

Several to choose from

There is a choice of wedding psalms and alleluia verses, at least seven different psalms, and even more to choose from because there are often alternative Responses for the same psalm (none of this is me, by the way, this is all straight out of the Lectionary.)  The main thing I would say is make this an active choice.  Choose a psalm where the words mean something to you, ideally to both of you, personally.  If you have a favourite psalm and it’s not listed, have a word with your priest and ask if you may substitute it.  If I haven’t already set it (or you don’t like the tune), e-mail me.  Shortest turn-round time ever was a couple of days, but I’m pleased to say I got it done, and delighted to say that they liked it, but more notice is a help!

And the chance to go off-piste if you want to

The psalm selection isn’t always the ones I would choose, but there are some good happy psalms to choose from (though inclusive language is in short supply).  There are several which are basically just hooray for God psalms, and there are some which are hooray for the just man.  There is only one which speaks specifically about the family, and that from the man’s viewpoint (127/128); overall, there is definitely an emphasis on only the male half of this pairing, and this might encourage you to consider other options.   (All the psalm settings are listed on the website www.musicformass.co.uk , so you can listen to the tunes.)  Invite all the angels as witnesses to your wedding with Psalm 137/138.   Consider Psalm 19/20, which asks God to protect you (both), to give you your heart’s desire and fulfil every one of your plans;  or Psalm 36/37, which says ‘if you find your delight in the Lord, he will grant you your heart’s desire’ with the Response ‘May the Lord always hold us by the hand’.  I set both these as graduation psalms for two of my daughters, and the words have the excitement of a new beginning as well as the reassurance of God’s love.   And if you really want Psalm 22/23 (The Lord is my shepherd), ask for it; it does not have to be kept for funerals!

Be careful of the message

Above all – and this goes for your choice of hymns too – check the words.  If you are choosing an anthem or something for the signing of the register, check the words.  Even if it’s in a foreign language, check the words.  There will be some smartiebreeks there who understands them.  I remember being in the choir at a wedding where the bride’s best friend sang ‘Lascia ch’io pianga‘ from Handel’s Rinaldo.  It is a beautiful tune.  But the words say ‘Let me weep for my cruel fate, and sigh for my liberty’, not a good choice for a wedding.  If it was a mistake, it was embarrassing; if it was deliberate, it was in very poor taste.  Check the words.

Choosing the wedding hymns

Here I would just say, try to mix it up a little, as this increases the chance of your congregation knowing at least one of them.  Maybe adapt the old rhyme.  Something old (trad Catholic) – eg Soul of my Saviour;  something new (but not too new) – something like City of God ;  something borrowed (one of the great Anglican or Methodist hymns – enormous choice here but eg Now thank we all our God);  something blues-y- eg  Gentle as silence.   Leave out any category you hate, but don’t let them all be out of the same box (unless it’s the borrowed box, because that has so many different sorts of options in it).

Choosing the wedding readings

I know I said I was only going to talk about the music, but I can’t not include picking your readings here.  There’s a good reason why most people stick with the Bible readings : they are relevant and not embarrassing.  Choose something you like by all means, even not biblical if your priest is happy, but check the words.  A younger brother is an excellent sounding board on this.  If he snorts with laughter, yawns or goes bright pink, think of choosing something else.  You have the rest of your life together to read The Owl and the Pussycat or Pigling Bland.

Don’t forget to choose the Alleluia verse

There are a few options available in the Lectionaries as the Alleluia verse, so don’t forget to make a choice here also.  Funnily enough, these are different from ordinary Sunday Alleluias, so they are mostly new settings of the verse words.  I have kept them all nice and simple.  There are various standard Alleluia top and tails, and I used the Jacob Alleluia for one of the US options because he’s a good model for persistence even if he behaves badly later on.  Remember there may well be people at the wedding who don’t know their way around, but they will want to join in if you make it easy for them.

It’s always wonderful and heartwarming to see how much goodwill there is at a wedding service, all focussed on the two people at front and centre.  They will listen to your readings.  They will sing the music you have chosen.  It’s your wedding.  Make it special.  The choices are all yours.

© 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.

What about the organ, ‘the king of instruments’ ?

The organ rising from the primaeval swamp

When we think about church music in the west, we think of choirs and we think of the organ, but the organ is not an instrument mentioned in the psalms, unless you include the wonderful prophetic reference in Psalm 41 (42) : ‘Deep calleth unto deep at the sound of thy waterspouts’.  Sadly even this doesn’t survive into more modern translations; The Grail has ‘…in the roar of waters’, new Grail ‘…in the roar of your torrents’, which are powerful and frankly make better sense, but I regret losing the organ reference. The Anglican psalter has ‘ One deep calleth another, because of the noise of the waterpipes’, which is definitely prophetic, but perhaps the translation then was influenced by knowing that organs started that way, rather than the other way round.   Still, it delights any organist.

First water pressure then air

The organ is the first keyboard instrument (press not plink) and the biggest of all the instruments, according to my trusty Ladybird book.  The Greeks thought of it first, as so often; possibly  it was Ctesibius of Alexandria .  It was indeed water pipes, and about the third century BC (so about 700 years after the psalms).  Bellows instead of water power came in around the fourth century AD.  It was always a large instrument, because each note needs a separate pipe to sound, so it tended to be built into large buildings.  Deep notes need very long pipes.

Great cathedrals and great organs

It was Guillaume de Machaut who called it ‘the king of instruments’.  He was born in 1300, went off to work for the King of Bohemia in 1323 and that’s another place that has fine historical organs.  We remember also that at this stage, kings tended to be much bigger than other people because of a better diet. The great mediaeval cathedrals had big beautiful organs built into them (Machaut went on to work in Rheims), and this style of organ just kept getting bigger, as ingenious musical engineers developed new stops and more potential volume.  (I know of an organ builder who puts a special local stop into any organ he builds.  The last one was bagpipes.)  But these organs were built in and so fixed in position, so later developments are the portative organ, small and portable as the name suggests, and the positive organ (not easily portable, but which could be moved, maybe standing on a table).  Bach had pedals, and so did the other Europeans, but they were not part of English organ building until nearly the end of the eighteenth century, and then the cunning French worked out how to use electricity in 1867 to power the organ, so it was all debugged and fully operational in time for Messiaen (born in 1908).

Getting bigger, getting smaller

Until the telephone exchange was invented, the organ was the biggest and most complicated machine in existence.  Now we have computers, and they just keep shrinking.  So do the telephones.  Now we have electronic organs and keyboards, which are portable, but they don’t make the same noise as those wonderful enormous church organs.  However, those do need to be sensitively played when accompanying, or they can easily swamp  any number of voices, but when they are playing solo, there is nothing comparable.  Except possibly the voice of the Almighty, which is also preceded by the rushing of a mighty wind.

Saint Cecilia sadly not involved

I am really sorry to have to admit that Saint Cecilia was not involved in the invention of the organ.  I had a woolly idea of her inventing the organ on the sea shore because of the inspiration of the wind and the waves, but alas, no.  I think it’s partly confusion between Britten’s Ode to Saint Cecilia and Britten’s own memorial on the beach at Aldeburgh.

Cecilia is an early martyr (died around 167 AD), and she’s the patron saint of music because when her parents decided to marry her against her will to a pagan husband, she sang in her heart to the Lord during the wedding, not in gladness but in supplication.  The Lord sorts everything out, the husband converts and his brother also, and eventually after many other converts, including all the soldiers sent to arrest this most persuaive lady, all the Christians are killed on the orders of Marcus Aurelius (presumably in one of his less humane moments).  Chaucer’s Second Nun in the Canterbury Tales tells the story of St Cecilia, but interestingly it’s all about vows of virginity and converting lots of people on the way to death, so the music angle evidently became more important later.  We really know almost nothing about her, but I think her popularity is grounded in the natural desire to honour a patron saint of something so important to so many people.

Patron saints and tactless iconography

It’s good to find a positive patron saint (especially a female one).  Often they are special because of their method of martyrdom (teeth for St Apollonia, eyes for Lucy), even using them as namebadges in mediaeval portraits (Catherine and the wheel, Lawrence and the grill), so it’s good to find St Cecilia accompanied by various instruments, harps, lyres, trumpets, other instruments; but very often a portative organ.  Any sort of organ except the original hydraulis is going to be of far later date than the saint; and what I think we have here is evidence of the idea that because organs are in churches, they are uniquely suitable to music on sacred themes.  I think this is wrong.  I think any musical instrument, like any language, can be just as appropriate as any other for singing to or about God.

All are welcome, not just organists

People have preferences, and that’s good.  It keeps things varied and interesting.  What I don’t like is when someone insists that ‘only’ one specific instrument is the right one, whatever it is.  Church musicians are a band, like any other band.  Just like in so many films, you assemble the band, and then you play the gig.  So on a Sunday, or hopefully at the rehearsal beforehand, you work with the musicians who present themselves.  One of the most encouraging psalms says,’ Make a joyful noise unto the Lord’.  Not a refined noise, or a performance with no errors, or a gloomy little whisper, just a joyful noise.  And we can all manage that.


Thank you to Mary who first asked the question, to wikipaedia, to various reference books I happen to have (Oxford Dictionary of Music, Oxford Companion ditto), to Geoffrey Chaucer, and my old Ladybird book.  This has been a fascinating distraction from all the other things I should have been doing!

© 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.