The Gentle Guide to my Holy Week music

The hill of the skull, a mountain to climb?
Icon crucifixion
The central, not final, event

Holy Week is a daunting prospect for church musicians. There is so much to do, so many different services, several extra musicians if you’re lucky, because it’s the holidays, and a bad time of the year for coughs and colds.  It’s like Christmas but on a much bigger scale, and it’s not remotely cosy and cuddly, but elemental and dark. This is not an attempt to tell anyone how to do it; I just thought I would walk you through the options in my musical settings, and hope that someone finds it helpful.

I find it helpful to think of it as a walk, because you only have to take one step at a time.  Don’t worry about the Vigil while you’re doing Maundy Thursday; don’t worry about Isaiah while you’re responding to Genesis.  We’re all travelling together, and the Church has laid out the path clearly over the last two thousand years.  We just have to walk along it, one step at a time, and we’ll get there.

Maundy Thursday

We have already had Palm Sunday (hosanna), so the next liturgical event is the Chrism Mass on Maundy Thursday, which most parishes don’t need to worry about, as it is for the assembled clergy of a diocese and happens in cathedrals. Here you would have much more in the way of musical resources than most parishes have, so I imagine most people will go for big four-part settings.  But I have set the Chrism psalm (88/89) just in case anyone wants a simpler setting.  It is the same psalm as for the feast of St Joseph last week, which feels appropriate, but with a different response. Instead of ‘the son of David will live forever’ to emphasize Jesus’ parentage through Joseph (slightly odd, because Joseph is not part of the direct line, but never mind), we have ‘Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord’, which is a wonderfully encouraging note to strike before we go down into the valley of the shadow.

The Sacred Triduum (the holy three days) only starts after the Chrism Mass, with the evening Mass on Maundy Thursday. We call this ‘the Mass of the Lord’s Supper’, but I was delighted to hear a non-native English speaker refer to it as ‘the Mass of the Holy Dinner’, because that is exactly what we mean, only we are so used to ‘the Last Supper’ as a phrase that we don’t think about its original meaning.

Last Supper, Cranach the Elder
Holy Dinner at a round table

This is a long, complicated and very beautiful service.  With the first reading we have the original Passover story, because this is the reason why Jesus is holding a formal dinner with his friends.  The psalm (115/116) neatly picks up this reference (responding to God’s goodness, celebrating formally with the cup of salvation), and carries us across to the story of the Messiah, connecting him to the sacrificed lamb of the Passover, ‘precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his faithful [..] I am your servant, the son of your handmaid’, and then moves brilliantly to the Eucharistic Sacrifice by using Paul’s line in 1 Corinthians 10 ‘our blessing cup is a communion with the blood of Christ’ as the Response.  Thus we have the whole circle, and I could draw a lovely diagram if I knew how to do it with this software.  It is elegant and economical, liturgically speaking, and a three-verse psalm has done the whole job.  It’s quite a long Response, and it’s not out of the psalm itself, and I know I fulminate against both those things occasionally, but here is an example where it works superbly well.

Then we have the Gospel, the footwashing, Communion and the transfer of the Blessed Sacrament.  There are ancient and modern hymns and anthems for these parts of the liturgy (Pange lingua, Wash me throughly, Ubi caritas etc) but no more psalms till the next day.

Good Friday

An unexpectedly serene and confident psalm (30/31) for Good Friday, when we have a Liturgy of the Word and Communion and other parts of a special service (the Adoration of the Cross, the Reproaches), but no Mass.  But this psalm does have a dreadful middle section, and the two moods within the psalm are so different that I had to write it as two tunes, as I was saying in my last post.  The US and CAN versions have four verses, with v2 as the terrible part; UK and OZ divide that verse into two, so there are five verses overall.  This means that I can start on a positive note, dip into the middle verse(s), and come out again for the last part, so the two tunes seem to work with the congregation, especially as the Response stays the same.

Trying to get this psalm onto fewer pages is really difficult, and I couldn’t improve on 4 pp for CAN.  But you do only need 2 pp at once; once you’ve finished p2, ditch those sheets and use the second pair, as I have put the Response on again at the end.  By careful squeezing I got everyone else’s version on to 3 pp.  Although it’s Good Friday, this is actually an easier psalm to sing than Palm Sunday (and you’re already the other side of that one):  the psalmist is so confident and serene that he even has time to think of others in the last verse, and encourage them to be brave (which is of course exactly what the Lord does in Luke’s Gospel, ch 23 : ‘This day you shall be with me in paradise’).

Saturday night, the Vigil

And on to the Easter Vigil.  Lots of music, lots of choices, some of the best words in the whole year.  Many parishes do shortened versions (understandably), but I’ve tried to pace and pitch the music so that it’s not too much to manage.  You will not be hoarse at the end even if you have to cant all the psalms, as I’ve used the instruments to bring in the colour of high notes where I wanted them.   I’ll just go through and make a couple of comments on each.

First Reading psalms : either 103/104 or 32/33

This is a real choice, as both psalms include beautiful nature poetry, as you would expect after the reading of the Creation.  I’d probably choose 32/33 myself, because I like the swing of it.  That one has twinkling stars, the other one has twittering birds, so you choose.  I do like the stars being made by God’s breath in the earlier psalm.  I was once waiting for a tram, under a streetlight in Prague, with the temperature at minus 25 degrees, and if you puffed out a breath all the moisture in it instantly froze and reflected the light as separate sparkles.  I created stars with my breath, and it was wonderful.  CAN and UK please note that the final flourish on the recorders is only printed in the extended version as I couldn’t fit it into the compact.

Second Reading psalm 15/16

This follows the reading on the nearly-sacrifice of Isaac, which is a difficult one to respond to (I know it’s about representation and archetypes, but I still respond to it as a parent rather than anything else).  The US words are a bit unwieldy, but all the other country versions are a lullaby, because of the confidence in the words.

Third Reading, Exodus

These are glorious words, but hopelessly irregular (the words were outsourced to prophets rather than psalmists).  I cannot find any way that works to telescope the pages, so you will need someone to turn over for the person on the piano/organ/keyboard, even with the piano copy.  This one was great fun to set and to sing.  It is exciting, and a wonderful story, so make sure the words are clear.

Pharoah's horses in the Red Sea
The horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea

Fourth Reading psalm 29/30

Another joyful psalm.  Emphasize the contrast words, because that is what drives the movement (night/day, mourning/dancing, anger/ favour, moment/life, tears/joy, life/grave).  The US version has two instruments, because we were lucky enough to have them available when I was writing it.

Fifth Reading, Isaiah

This is a fun psalm in all the versions even if they get their water of salvation differently.  UK and CAN have to pump from wells (so the music does), the US has springs (so the music bubbles up and runs over), and OZ confusingly has both, so I just concentrated on making it watery.  This time I managed to get the final flourish even into the compact format (not US).

Peaceful holy well
Holy well where you would need a bucket

Sixth Reading psalm 18/19

This nearly came badly off the rails, as I mixed up my everlasting with my eternal and thought OZ and CAN had the same words, but they are not the same, and luckily I spotted it in time.  We had this psalm in Lent, so there might be a folk memory of the tune in the congregation if you are lucky.

Seventh Reading psalm 41/42 +42/43 or 50/51

Another one where you get an alternative (unless you live in Australasia).  41/42 + 42/43 is a lovely psalm (as well as having the longest label in the book), but it’s also good to be offered the positive verses of Psalm 50/51.  The mood has darkened again slightly with these psalms, away from the ebullient joy of the psalms in the middle section, because we are now coming up to the big moment.  This is the last OT Reading, so we go back to thinking about how much we are longing for the Redeemer and how sad we are at our part in causing his death.  Yearning and patient waiting is the note here.

Easter Vigil Mass psalm 117/118

Now we have arrived at the psalm we are going to use repeatedly  for a couple of weeks, sometimes with a different Response, sometimes with different verses (this is a big psalm).  Here the Response is the ancient triple Alleluia, incantatory and soberly joyful (note the full stops, not commas or exclamation marks).  This is your first proper Alleluia since before Lent began, and you have to warm up into it.  This is why the Easter Vigil is so long.  Enormous joy has to be approached with care.  We kindled a tiny flame at the beginning of the Vigil: now it is a proper bonfire, a feu de joie,  a conflagration of celebration.

and Sunday morning, the day after the Sabbath

Easter Sunday Mass psalm 117/118

Same psalm, different Response : now we can do more than just stutter our Alleluia, we have a story to tell and we can frame it in words.  We can rejoice ourselves, and we can call others to come and rejoice with us.

So much emotion, so much music.  It’s not surprising we feel exhausted by the end, but it’s positive exhaustion which will keep on giving.  It has been a long walk up the hill, but the view from the top is sublime.  Well done all choirs, church musicians and especially music directors, who have to remember to congratulate and thank everyone else but might not get thanked themselves.  I am extremely grateful to you, especially of course if you have used any of my music!  Happy Easter, alleluia, alleluia.

He hath op’d the heavenly door/And man is blest for evermore

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. 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.


Palm or Passion Sunday and its psalm(s)

Two complete services for Palm/Passion Sunday?

Ideally, there would be two different masses on Palm or Passion Sunday, one for the Palm bit and one for the Passion bit. It was always called Palm Sunday when I was little, and certainly that was what you remembered from year to year, the handing out of strange yellow papery things (it was years before I actually realised they were meant to be leaves) and the (slightly embarrassing) mini-procession into the church, singing a hymn with joyful words but usually a dirge-like tune, and the people in church getting out of sync with those still outside, so that you had to do a quick change on crossing the threshold, like when you move from a room with a digital radio into one with an analogue playing the same programme.  Since then, I’ve lived in countries where people bring green branches from their gardens to have them blessed and then wave them in the procession.  This can be difficult in a long winter like this one, but probably gives more of the correct feel.  Blossom branches are uncanonical but very pretty.

Some of these branches are more like mushrooms…
Music to walk in with -Palm Sunday

For the procession, of course you can use Psalm 23/ 24, with its glorious appeal to the gates to grow higher so that the king of glory can come in and not bang his head.  This is a wonderful psalm which appears also during Advent, and especially at the Feast of the Presentation.  It is tremendously exciting to write a tune for, although it’s difficult not to be intimidated by the fact that Handel has already done it better than anyone else.  But most parishes don’t get to sing it, as the liturgy has added an unwieldy antiphon which slows it down, and it’s easier to sing in procession a hymn that the congregation already knows.  I’d be tempted to sing it straight through as a Responsorial Psalm if you want to process to it, because then the rhythm doesn’t keep being interrupted.  The 4 Advent A version or the Presentation one both have good short responses (the antiphon is three lines long).

Everybody loves a good procession
A sudden change of mood

However, most parishes use a hymn for the procession, for good reason, so that psalm may not be used at all (though it gets quoted in the Entrance Antiphon of the Simple Entrance).  But whatever music you have before Mass, once it gets under way, there is an instant change of mood, like a screech of brakes or possibly more accurately a grinding of the gears as the atmosphere changes completely.  This is entirely appropriate, as the crowd does indeed reverse its behaviour between the entrance into Jerusalem and the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, but it happens shockingly fast on Sunday morning this week.

Abrupt change to Passion Sunday, and a new psalm

We have to have the Passion read out this Sunday because next Sunday is already Easter.  Many places don’t have Holy Week services, and many people can’t get to them if they do exist, so in order to follow the correct sequence for as many people as possible, the Church has to include the rest of the events of Holy Week in the same day as Christ’s triumphant arrival into Jerusalem.  This is why it feels like two Sundays’-worth of readings, and the psalms to match.

Illuminated initial for Ps 22
Initial consonant for Ps 21/22, showing the dogs besetting the victim.
Problems with Psalm 21/22

The first reading is from Isaiah and immediately plunges us into the pain of the Suffering Servant.  The psalm now has to reflect and answer this reading, so we have Psalm 21/22, one of the upsetting psalms to sing.  The Response is the first line, but the verses start a few lines further in, and they are hard to read and even harder to sing.  As Christians, we read the words of the psalm as a faithful sequential narration of the Passion; we don’t even think of it as an earlier prediction fulfilled, although of course the early Christians of Jewish background would have done.

From that…to this
Mixed moods, mixed messages

But even in the short version we have in the Missal for this Sunday (four strophes out of sixteen in the whole psalm), the mood is not unrelieved.  Notice in the initial consonant in the picture above, that God is visibly there (the little hand just above the big D to the right).  Even as the words say,’My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’, we can see that he has not forsaken us.  The first three strophes of the psalm (I’m not calling them ‘verses’, because of possible confusion with the verse-numbering) are appalling.  The third ends with another cry for help (similar to v1, the Response), and then moves forward, in the fourth strophe, to an affirmation of God’s goodness, which is very significantly in the future tense.  There are holes in the hands and feet of the Suffering Servant; he can count every bone, but he looks forward to a time when he will talk about God’s goodness to his friends and praise him in the assembly.  The awfulness is not the end.

The joys of modal (and the pathos too)

This makes it difficult to put it to music which won’t seem totally inappropriate either at the beginning or at the end, but thank God for modal tunes, which are more elastic than standard major or minor  (Barbara Allen, The Wraggle Taggle Gypsies, O waly, waly, What shall we do with the drunken sailor? etc.).  The abiding characteristic of a modal tune is its plaintive and (hopefully) haunting quality.   It is very good for pathos, but not without lightness (lots of folk songs, especially old ones, exploit this), and there is room for the gleams of sunshine after the storm.

One psalm, two tunes (Good Friday psalm)

When there are very different moods within the same psalm, it’s always difficult to work out what to do.  For Good Friday, the Response stays the same, but the mood of the different strophes is so different that I had to have two separate tunes (this is Psalm 30/31, four strophes US, five everyone else); but that works because the terrible verse(s) are in the middle of the psalm, so the congregation can cope with a bit of the unexpected, and then feel safely back on track as you come to the last Response.

Palm Sunday : not alternation but progression

Here in Psalm 21/22 on the other hand, I would have had to make the last verse different from all the others, and that would have undermined confidence just at the point where I need people to come in strongly.

Crucifixion with angels and saints
Serene but heart-breaking

Significantly, Jesus’ words from the cross (and our Response) are only the first line of this long psalm, and the commentators emphasize that he must have continued the psalm in his mind even if he could not utter any more of it.  It is a cry of anguish but not of despair.  Our last strophe this Sunday is at the beginning of the positive last third of the psalm,  so positive that we will be singing it on the fifth Sunday of Easter this year, probably without even remembering that the words come from this same psalm.  The selection of verses for the fifth Sunday of Easter is completely positive even though part of this same psalm,  with a serene confidence in the goodness of God and a call to go out and tell everyone, all the ends of the earth and all the families of nations.

There is even more encouragement in the verses which are not included in either Sunday version of the psalm : ‘For he (God) has never despised nor scorned the poverty of the poor.  From him he has not hidden his face, but he heard the poor man when he cried’ (v 25).  This is a hard psalm to sing, especially in the Palm Sunday version, but if you read the whole psalm, it is clear that the psalmist’s and Jesus’ feet are very firmly planted. ‘In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you set them free. […] In you they trusted and never in vain’ (vv 5-6).  It is a psalm for the darkness, but joy is coming in the morning.

Beautiful dawn


© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. 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.