The hill of the skull, a mountain to climb?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.