Music at a Time of Penitence

by Frances Novillo
Posted at 05:45am on 18th February 2017

Promote prayer, fasting, and charity in your choice and presentation of Lenten music

Be restrained musically during Lent to reflect the penitential nature of the season

Where possible, introduce during Lent pieces to repeat during the Triduum

During Lent, carefully chosen music helps Catholics deepen their experience of this transformative season.  Hymns such as Again we keep this solemn fast and Alan Hommerding’s From ashes to the living font explicitly express the Lenten focus on prayer, fasting and charity, and may be sung to familiar tunes (melodies commonly associated with When I survey and Amazing grace respectively).  Newer Lent repertoire such as Return to God by Marty Haugen and Tom Read’s Ashes to Beauty (The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord) link personal devotions (such as prayer and fasting) with charitable works. 

Lent presents a good opportunity to review parish musical practices and ensure these promote prayer among all present.  For example, do the musicians and singers arrive in good time to set up and sit quietly or sing gently in the moments before Mass helping the congregation gather in church prayerfully?  Are there enough hymnbooks available for the whole congregation to join in singing their prayer at Mass?  Consider how effectively the lyrics and delivery of music at Sunday Mass motivates worshippers to act charitably during Lent.  The Lenten fast can be reflected in parish music making by simply ‘giving up’ something musical during Lent, for example, using instruments only to accompany singing; singing in unison where the music is usually in harmony; singing unaccompanied; omitting percussion or descants where these are common; choosing a simpler Mass setting, for example, Christopher Walker’s Belmont Mass or the Missal chants.  Simplifying music during Lent has the practical benefit of freeing up rehearsal time to meet the demands of preparing Holy Week music, and makes Eastertide’s joyful music sound even more exciting by contrast. 

Alleluia is neither said nor sung during Lent, so the Gospel Acclamation text changes.  Catholic hymnbooks include useful settings by James Walsh and Chris O’Hara.  Janèt Sullivan Whitaker’s bright Gospel-style setting published in ‘These Forty Days’ suits lively music groups; choirs may prefer David Ogden’s version from the RSCM’s ‘The Way of the Cross’.  The penitential season of Lent is a good time to begin singing the Penitential Act if you don’t already do this, or to sing a longer setting to permit deeper reflection.

Many Lenten lyrics reflect the Sunday Mass readings.  Jesus’ encounter with Satan reported in the Gospel on the 1st Sunday of Lent is linked to our own efforts to resist temptation in the hymns Lord, who throughout these forty days by Claudia Hernaman, and John L. Bell’s When Satan speaks (The courage to say no).  Hymns about light and transformation including Immortal, invisible; Christ be our light; Shine, Jesus, shine; Be still for the presence of the Lord and Be thou my vision alongside newer compositions such as Bob Hurd’s Transfigure us, O Lord highlight the 2nd Sunday of Lent’s Gospel account of the transfiguration.  The latter part of Lent in Year A includes grand and memorable Gospel stories, echoed in well-known hymns such as Amazing Grace and Breathe on me, breath of God.  On the 3rd Sunday of Lent, it may be possible to introduce a song about water to repeat at the Easter Vigil, for example, Bob Hurd’s With joy you shall draw water.  The hymn I heard the voice of Jesus say echoes the Lenten Gospels and the RCIA Scrutinies, which occur during Lent and can be enhanced musically by singing in response to the intercessions, or a simple short song to conclude each Rite (for example, Bernadette Farrell’s Word of God, renew your people or David Haas’ Blessed be God).

Consider singing antiphons during Lent, even if this isn’t your usual tradition.  The Psallite collection provides melodic refrains for everyone to sing, with Psalm verses which may be sung by a cantor.  For example, the Psallite Communion Antiphon setting for the 2nd Sunday of Lent (Here is my servant) has a pretty refrain which may be sung as a round, so even a novice choir or singing group can add harmonies effectively.  The first Communion Antiphon for the 1st Sunday of Lent is set by Stephen Dean in Laudate, and the second is quoted in Michael Joncas’ Eagles’ Wings.

Gently repetitive and unobtrusive Psallite pieces may be suitable to sing during individual Confessions at a Lent Reconciliation service; likewise, the Lenten chants Attende Domine and Parce Domine sung in Latin or English.  Such services may open with a penitential Lenten hymn such as Lord Jesus, as we turn from sin by Ralph Wright or the Tumbuka song collected by Tom Colvin You, Israel, return now, and include a sung Psalm during the Liturgy of the Word.  The Common Psalms for Lent are 50(51) Have mercy on us; and 90(91) Be with me Lord.  The Sunday Psalms in Year A are very singable, including 129(130) Out of the depths, and 22(23) The Lord’s my shepherd, hymn settings of which are commonly found in parishes’ standard repertoire.  Among the Psalms suggested for singing during the RCIA Scrutinies is 138(139), versified by Bernadette Farrell in O God, you search me and you know me.

Parish worship in Lent frequently features the Stations of the Cross.  Musically, this may be enhanced by singing a short refrain such as We adore you by Martin Foster or Suzanne Toolan, or the Taizé chant Jesus, remember me between each station.  The service may start or end with a hymn expressing the demands of Christian discipleship such as Richard Gillard’s Brother, sister, let me serve you, Graham Kendrick’s Servant-King, or the more recent Jesus, you have called us from  Some parishes incorporate the Stabat Mater into the Stations of the Cross, singing each section progressively as the service unfolds, or singing the whole hymn at the station recalling Jesus’ death.  However, at this profound moment, worshippers may prefer to remain silent.  Lenten abstinence in parish music extends to careful discernment of liturgical moments when it may be better not to sing at all, but to reflect in silence on the significance of the season.

Frances Novillo, FISM, ARSCM, MA is parish music co-ordinator in High Barnet and trains church musicians across the country.

Published as Music at a Time of Penitence on 18th February 2017 in The Tablet: The International Catholic News Weekly.  Reproduced with permission of the publisher.  https:///

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