It's that time of year again, when those of us who are Church musicians are making final preparations to help guide our assemblies through the central mysteries of our faith - the events of Holy Week. As we look forward to commemorating the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Christ, we also look forward to walking with one another through these events and initiating and welcoming new members into the Body of Christ.
Of course, all of this requires music... a LOT of music! This can be an extremely exhausting week for Church musicians, but I always find it one of the most rewarding times of the year, too, both as a performer/conductor and as a composer. Here are some of the musical moments that I am looking forward to at the Church of St. Peter in Saratoga Springs this Holy Week.
Like many of the events of Holy Week, Palm Sunday can be both beautiful and heart wrenching at the same time, with its commemoration of Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem and the singing of "Hosanna to the Son of David!" coupled with the proclamation of the Passion (this year according to St. Luke). Amid all of this, though, the most poignant musical moment for me, personally, is the Communion Hymn. In 2010, I premiered a set of ostinato refrains (repetitive refrains with superimposed verses) for Lent
entitled Communion Ostinatos for Lent and the Triduum, based on the prescribed Communion antiphons for those days. It just so happened that, during Lent of 2010, my eldest daughter, then only four years old, was diagnosed with leukemia, and began what would be two-and-a-half years of chemotherapy. My first weekend back at church following this devastating diagnosis happened to be Palm Sunday, and the Communion refrain I had written for that Sunday was a setting of the text, "Father, if this cup may not pass but I must drink it, then your will be done." This certainly tapped some very raw emotions for me that year, and every year since that we have sung this text has served to remind me that my family was never alone in our difficulty. I had no idea when I wrote this piece how personal it would become for me. My daughter is now 13, and has been cancer-free for many years. As I play, conduct, and sing this piece on Palm Sunday, it will be in solidarity with all those who are suffering through similar situations, and in gratitude that God walks with us in our suffering.
I always find the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday to be a beautiful experience. With the triumphant return of the Gloria (silenced during the season of Lent), the reading of the Passover account from the Book of Exodus, the experience of the Mandatum as our parishioners wash one another's feet, the presentation of the Holy Oils that will be used throughout the year for Sacraments and other blessings, and the special reverence given to the Eucharist on this night, it is hard not to get swept up. From a musical standpoint, I amvery much looking forward to the aforementioned return of the Gloria, using the setting from my Mass of Redeeming Love, and giving it its full-throated due on our organ and with our choir. I am also looking forward to the singing of my new hymn, The Body of the Lord, during Holy Communion, a hymn we have used as a Recessional Hymn during Lent at St. Peter's, with its use on Holy Thursday being a culmination of sorts. I am very pleased with how this has been received at St. Peter's, with our congregation really taking ownership of it. The text of the refrain is a paraphrase of the words of St. Augustine: "That which we receive, / We are called to be: / Blest and consecrated / As food for all the world. / Help us to believe / As we cry, "Amen!" / Sent forth from your altar / The Body of the Lord."
The Passion of the Lord liturgy on Good Friday is something that I have worked very hard on over the years as a church musician, always trying to plumb the depths of the texts of this liturgy, and what is commemorated and celebrated. This is a beautiful celebration, acknowledging the suffering that Jesus was willing to endure for our salvation. I have gradually built a repertoire for our choir and congregation over the years that, I hope, serves to bring greater meaning to a mystery that we cannot even begin to truly understand. From Richard Rossi's beautiful a cappella setting of Psalm 31, proclaimed by the choir, to Christopher Walker's haunting setting of St. John's Passion narrative, proclaimed by narrator, choir, and baritone (as Jesus), we have found great meaning through music for this celebration at St. Peter's. New this year, during the part of this
liturgy where we are invited to venerate the Cross, I have completed the composition of my Good Friday Adoration Suite, which is a setting of all the texts of the Roman Missal that are assigned to accompany this action. Composed for two Cantors, SATB Choir, and Assembly with optional accompaniment, this four-movement suite includes a new setting of Behold the Wood of the Cross (sung during the Showing of the Cross before the veneration begins), a new setting of We Adore Your Cross (which utilizes an ostinato refrain), my setting of The Reproaches (premiered last year), and my setting of Faithful Cross, which we have sung for several years at St. Peter's under its Latin title, Crux Fidelis. My hope with setting all of these texts and combining them into one suite was to explore the richness of the official texts of this ritual, and to set them in a way that the musical themes and key structures are related, pulling the ritual together in more of a seamless way. I am excited to premiere this full suite as part of our celebration this year, and I hope it adds to the meaning of this liturgy for all who come to pray with us.
The Easter Vigil
The Easter Vigil Mass after sundown on Holy Saturday is a real highlight of the liturgical year for me, and it would not surprise me if it is for most musicians in the Roman Catholic tradition. What I love about it is how it is ever new and ever ancient at the same time, with ancient prayers that accompany the blessing of the New Fire, new Paschal Candle, and the waters of Baptism, and the ancient words that serve to initiate new members into the Church. One highlight for me is that I have the honor of chanting the Exsultet at St. Peter's, a beautiful, lengthy prayer sung during the first part of the Vigil liturgy. Again, this is an ancient chant used once a year to breathe new life into the Church. This is followed by a Liturgy of the Word which includes seven readings from the Old Testament, each coupled with a sung Psalm response, as we keep vigil. We are blessed at St. Peter's to have some wonderful Cantors within our choir who proclaim these Psalms beautifully.
The Gloria (same setting as mentioned above) then bursts forth in all its... well... glory, and then, after a stirring reading from St. Paul, the Alleluia returns after lying dormant since before Ash Wednesday. Great musical moments all. We then get to sing festive acclamations as our new members are Baptized and Confirmed, and as the entire congregation renews our own Baptismal Promises. We celebrate the Eucharist again, something we do Sunday after Sunday, yet it always seems fresh and new on this night, as does the music. After Communion, our choir will sing The Day the Lord Has Made, an a cappella setting that I arranged for SATB to the traditional tune O FILII ET FILIAE, and this moment always seems to have such spirit and life, despite the fact that the singers and I are all a bit exhausted by this point! We close the celebration with the traditional hymn Jesus Christ Is Risen Today, and the exuberance and sense of triumph is palpable in the full-throated ascent of all who gather.
While Easter Sunday morning will see our church full to the brim with parishioners and visitors alike, and the music is equally exuberant, rich and meaningful, the events of Holy Week and the Triduum ("three days") hold pride of place for me as having some of the most exquisite spiritual (and emotional) musical moments of the year. I hope that you who read this blog will consider joining us for these celebrations if you are able. All are welcome to participate in this profound experience. Our schedule at St. Peter's in Saratoga is as follows:
Anticipated on Saturday, April 13th at 5:00pm
Sunday, April 14th at 7:30am, 9:00am (with choir), and 11:00am
Holy Thursday: Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper
Thursday, April 18th at 7:00pm (with choir)
Good Friday: The Passion of the Lord
Friday, April 19th at 7:00pm (with choir)
The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night
Saturday, April 20th at 8:00pm (with choir)
Sunday, April 21st at 7:30am, 9:00am (with choir), and 11:00am
Happy Easter, everyone!