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

 

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.

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