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Musical Musings: Lent

Does Our Music Say "Lent"?

by Gary Penkala

Part I: Introduction...and Hymns

A collage of Lenten symbols: purple ... fasting ... simplicity ... preparation ... baptism ... quiet ... ashes ... renewal ... conversion ... the cross ... repentance ... the catechumenate. The evolution of the Church's liturgical practices has certainly produced a rich and intricate tapestry in this six-and-one-half week period before the Paschal Triduum. The Sacramentary and Lectionary both reinforce the special nature of the season. The Gloria and Alleluia, triumphant and joyful acclamations, are omitted from seasonal Masses and the Office. Purple is the daily color (except on Laetare Sunday and Palm Sunday). Each day has its own special Mass, dating from the seventh and eighth centuries. Does the music used during this season build on this groundwork, helping to bring alive the themes and moods of the liturgy, helping to set the season apart? Does our music say "Lent"?

Obviously, the area of hymn selection has great impact on the mood of our liturgies. Indices of various hymnals (not just your own) show a wealth of appropriate choices for seasonal hymns, as do our own Liturgical Planning pages. Using a hymnal rather than throw-away "missalettes" has innumerable benefits - but one drawback. It allows the planner the egregious option of using Easter music during Lent, or Christmas music during Advent. Avoid this liturgical sin AT ALL COSTS!

Looking specifically at Lenten hymnody, we see that there are certain favorite hymns in the Catholic tradition, coming from a number of sources (German chorales, spirituals, English hymn tunes). The hymns "O Sacred Head Surrounded," "Were You There?" and "These Forty Days of Lent" are familiar to most congregations and should be a part of every Lent. This cannot preclude the use of new hymns, as "musical stagnation" is certainly not a goal of the Lenten season. New Lenten hymns are more difficult to learn, however, since the people will not hear them for another year. When introducing a new Lenten hymn, as with any new hymn, use every means possible to add to its exposure: organ prelude or offertory, choir anthem, vocal solo, instrumental arrangement, explanation in liturgy sheet or bulletin. Consider using the new hymn each Sunday during Lent, either in a different place in the Mass or as a "common" Opening Song. In addition to reinforcing the hymn, this also adds great unity to the season. Alternation with a choir or cantor may be an effective way to sing the new hymn the first time, allowing the congregation opportunities on several verses to stop and listen.

 Back to Lent Index

Part II: Hymn Suggestions, Organ, and More! 

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