Music for Holy Week (up to Saturday)

There is so much music for Holy Week and Easter that it’s daunting just to assemble it. There are so many different moods and styles that need to be incorporated, and it’s one of the times in the year when you can hope for a bigger congregation than usual, so the responsibility is huge to make them feel not just welcome but able to join in.

Palm Sunday

The sequence has to start on Palm Sunday. First there is Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, but then we have that truly distressing psalm (21/22) and the reading of the Passion. Lots of people can’t get to services in the week, and this may be the only time they hear the Passion narrative before the Easter Sunday Gospel. So after the Hosannas at the beginning of Mass, that psalm is not only a response to the Isaiah reading about the suffering servant, but also immediately throws us forward to the Crucifixion, because these are the terrible words that Jesus cries from the cross. It would be unbearable without the last verse.

Maundy Thursday

The Chrism Mass is mostly for the clergy, and the psalm (88/89) is a short one for everyone except the Canadians, who have an extra (third) verse.

The Mass of the Lord’s Supper, in the evening, though, is one of the most beautiful masses of the year, and it has a lovely exultant psalm (115/116), whose only real difficulty is the Response, as it’s been taken not out of the psalm itself, but out of St Paul. I know he’s a towering genius and an amazing theologian, but he didn’t write to be sung, and it shows. It’s a bit long as a Response, but I’ve tried to give it a sufficiently predictable shape so that people don’t get lost in the middle. That particular Response is there, of course, to bridge the gap between the (Old Testament) psalm and the (New Testament) institution of the Eucharist and the New Covenant, so it’s very important to do it like that, it’s just that it doesn’t scan the way that the Grail psalms do, and you really don’t want a crunch between verse and response.  I hope you think that this works.

Good Friday

I’m always slightly surprised to find that the Good Friday psalm isn’t the same as the Palm Sunday one, but the Good Friday psalm is the more comforting Psalm 30/31. Again, the Response is something Christ says on the cross; again, the later verses are positive and confident, but I can’t help being arrested by the picture of the man that everyone runs away from (as the Apostles did); like a broken dish, used in the home so often, maybe carrying the Bread the night before, now broken and thrown in the rubbish, no further use. The link back to Palm Sunday is provided not by the Psalm, but by the Gospel Acclamation verse, which is the same. It is quite long, so it’s a bit squashed to fit onto one page, but still readable, I think.

I’m going to leave the Easter Vigil to my next post, as the mood change is so total and the quantity of music so enormous!

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Let all the people praise you

Joining in

One of the most important things (for me) about church music is that everyone (or as near as possible) should join in. I’m saying ‘one of’, because I have to admit to unhappy memories of times when the music was too bad, or too difficult, or too whimsical or something similar, and I have resolutely chosen not to keep trying. I feel bad about it when I do this, and I try not to, but it does happen.

I remember coming across a great piece of American polemic once called something like  ‘Why don’t Catholics sing?’, and part of the answer was that they had been uniquely traumatised by the awful music inflicted upon them. Unfortunately this is self-perpetuating, because I can’t count how many times I’ve been told that we can have ‘only’ the hymns the children know at a service.  When I suggest that we might teach them something new to them, I’m told that it’s too difficult. But this is nonsense. It’s like saying Shakespeare is difficult. His plays were written for everyone to enjoy; good hymns are written for everyone to sing. And a good hymn is as much better than a bad hymn as a good novel is more enjoyable than a bad short story.

Hymns and psalms

I’m going on about hymns because I’m not just talking about psalm settings here, but the psalms are our oldest hymns, it’s just they are in translation and we don’t have the original tunes to them. (Also I didn’t want it to look too much like special pleading for my own psalm-settings.)

To return to psalm settings, though, what are the practical implications, and why do we emphasize the word ‘singable’?  Because I want people to join in, I need to make it easy for them to do so, and I need to make them want to do so (that second bit is much more difficult, and takes time).  First of all, it helps a lot if the priest is also trying to get people to join in.  Because it really matters.  This is why I put ‘Let the people praise you, O Lord, let all the people praise you’ as the strapline at the top of the website, because this is the point.  We are there to praise God, we’re not singing for us, and we’re not there as the audience to watch or listen to someone else.

It’s like when you gather your children together;  if one is missing, the hole is disproportionately large, like a missing tooth.  If we don’t sing, God misses our voices;  like a good choir leader, he can hear who is singing, and he wants to hear everyone.  As they say, ‘If God gave you a good voice, sing to praise him; if he didn’t, sing to get your own back.’.  But sing!

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