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Lenten Organ Music 2014

by Gary Penkala

In Lent the playing of the organ and musical instruments is allowed only in order to support the singing. Exceptions, however, are Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts [GIRM #313].

Each Lent, for the last few years, we've featured an article about what the Universal Church policy is [exactly] about organ music during Lent:

This year, I thought it might be interesting to look at your comments on this topic. It's still very clear in my mind [and looking at the above-quoted rubric from the new GIRM, in the mind of the Church as well], that no solo organ music (preludes, offertories, communions, postludes) are allowed during Lent (except on Laetare Sunday, solemnities and feasts). This issue was discussed on various blogs. Here's a sampling of the comments, kept "mercifully" anonymous:

  • Sacred Congregation for Rites – September 3, 1958

    81. Accordingly, the playing of the organ, and all other instruments is forbidden for liturgical functions, except Benediction, during the following times:
    a) Advent, from first Vespers of the first Sunday of Advent until None of the Vigil of Christmas
    b) Lent and Passiontide, from Matins of Ash Wednesday until the hymn Gloria in excelsis Deo in the Solemn Mass of the Easter Vigil
    c) the September Ember days if the ferial Mass and Office are celebrated
    d) in all Offices and Masses of the Dead.

    82. Only the organ may be used on the Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, and on the ferial days following these Sundays.

    83. However, during the seasons, and days just mentioned, the following exceptions to the rule may be made:
    a) the organ may be played, and other instruments used on holy days of obligation, and holidays (except Sundays), on the feasts of the principal local patron saint, the titular day, and the dedication anniversary of the local church, the titular or founder's day of a religious congregation, and on the occasion of some extraordinary solemnity
    b) the organ only (including the harmonium or reed organ) may be used on the third Sunday of Advent, and the fourth Sunday of Lent, on Thursday of Holy Week during the Mass of Chrism, and during the solemn evening Mass of the Last Supper from the beginning to the end of the hymn Gloria in excelsis Deo
    c) the organ only may be used at Mass, and Vespers for the sole purpose of supporting the singing
    Local Ordinaries may determine more precisely the application of these prohibitions, and permissions according to the approved local or regional customs.

    84. Throughout the Sacred Triduum, from the midnight before Holy Thursday until the hymn Gloria in excelsis Deo of the Solemn Mass of the Easter Vigil, the organ or harmonium shall remain completely silent, excepting the instance mentioned in paragraph 83b.
  • I've never heard of that rule at all. My parishes certainly use instruments during Lent and Advent, although I don't specifically remember about the Triduum; I think even during that time, too
  • At my previous parish, our music director never played any organ preludes or postludes during Advent and Lent for regular Sunday Mass. Any use of the organ (the organ was the only instrument used there as well) was also subdued and limited to just supporting the congregation. For the Masses with the choir during this time, much of it was music without the use of organ – Palestrina, Victoria, Gabrielli, Bruckner, etc.
  • Organ, just for accompanying hymns. I'll slip in a free accompaniment on Laetare. No preludes/postludes. No obbligato instruments. My pastor is big on this pattern, as am I.
  • Actually I'm amazed by how this works. I thought I'd be deadset against it, but I tried going without the organ except at hymns (and then only 8' 4') and it's incredible. It changes everything. I can't quote regulation on it, because I agree it's a silly regulation in principle. All I can say is give it a try for 3 weeks — Ash wednesday to Lent 3. You won't go back!
  • The prelude and postlude are both outside of the Mass. Therefore, I don't see the regulation of "no instrumental music" applying to those times. If I don't play a postlude, they just talk – loudly. So I usually play a very restrained postlude, sometimes at only 8', or perhaps 8' and 4'. For preludes, I play standard Lenten literature.

    It could be amazingly prayerful and solemn to go without any sound for the offertory. But it's not – at least not in my experience. You hear every little cough, sneeze, and the clanking of chalices as the priest hurriedly prepares the altar. People are visibly uncomfortable with the silence and are not praying. Omitting the music has the exact opposite of what the regulation intends to enable, in my humble opinion.
  • Maybe it would have the exact opposite at the beginning, but once people get used to hearing every little cough, sneeze and the clanking of chalices, I think you'll be surprised to see how sensitive they become. I make the same changes most of you listed above until Palm Sunday. After the psalm it's strictly a capella. There's no discomfort at all. As a matter of fact I think it sets the tone admirably for Holy Week. That's the ideal I use at my prinicple Masses. I have to capitulate at two Masses and use a little organ because the people just can't (won't) follow a lonely cantor crying in the wilderness at communion and offertory . They get all the acclamations just fine.
  • The applicable liturgical documents are clear about not using instruments during Lent except for accompanying voices. The notion that preludes and postludes are "technically" outside the Mass relies on extreme skills in the splitting of hairs. I realize that defending the primacy of the organ as a liturgical instrument is crucial in general, but to argue against the Church's explicit instructions is troubling. The whole point of the Lenten ban on (solo) instrumental music is abstinence/fasting! We never fully appreciate the celebration of Easter without the disciplines of Lent.
  • For a musician, giving up their beautiful music even just for one mass can be a very hard thing to do. You might want to find a good reason why not. Probably many can find a way to go around it. I think we musicians have a big pride. We can offer it up, and help others especially during Lent.

    It's not hard to do at all. My job is easier when I don't have to play. Dealing with the choir is penance enough for anyone.

    But if you want to find out what the Church wants, (because the Church gives so much freedom, it can be very confusing to know what is the right way these days,) you can find out by studying the old customs and traditions. Not to follow the old rules, but to see what their intention is. Rules for EF help to decide when the choices are too wide. We cannot be perfect, but we can at least try.
  • I don't know what the rule is, but it sounds ridiculous. I can't think of anything that adds to the solemnity of the Mass than good music including the organ. The pipe organ is not evil, is it? This is heavy-handed nonsense, if you ask me. Most people sing off key, and I like the organ loud enough to drown out all the wannabe singers.
  • While music is an integral part of the Liturgy, that "music" is properly sung music. The organ and symphonic instruments are merely additions which are permitted.

    That's the foundational thought.

    The organ is an instrument of joy and life. It was once written that the organ, because of its tonal and pitch-pallette capabilities, was imitative of all of creation in praise of God — the birds, the large animals, etc. — or, if you like, the harmony of the spheres. That is why in some French monestaries, the organ plays 'behind' the singing of the Pater Noster. All of creation, ourselves included, sing to the Father in praise.

    As to "life," that applies to piped organs, which require 'pneumos,' or breath; also note that electronic imitations of piped organs are discouraged.

    So suppressing the organ during penitential seasons is utterly consistent with that "joy/life" understanding of the instrument and why 'support only' is the terminology for Advent and Lent. It is meant to be restrictive.

    Yes, it's symbolic. So what? Liturgy without symbol is inconceivable, unless you agree with the Modern Project that elevates Utilitarianism and Didacticism above all.
  • No organ solo during Mass, then no instrumental prelude and postlude make sense to me. It's the musicians' sound judgement. The prelude and postlude tell you what comes in between. This is very different time in the Church year. Silence will tell people more directly what Lent is about than any notes can. (Silence is a music too.) I think this is one thing that the Church is very clear about the music.
  • In the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) no. 313 it states "the playing of the organ and musical instruments is allowed only to support the singing. Laetare Sunday, solemnities, and feasts are exceptions to this rule." That means no twiddling on the keyboard as the congregation go to Communion. If you desperately start craving organ voluntaries and the Fourth Sunday in Lent is not enough for you, head to a church on Saint Joseph’s Day on the 19th March or the Annunciation on the 25th March and you might just be in luck for a spot of Bach.
  • Where did we pick up these cranky Calvinists in Catholic music who want to forbid use of the organ? ;-) The organ has a legitimate place in the Mass along with the human voice — at least that's the way I read Church documents. Now I know some extremists turn it off and probably sit in their choir lofts in sackcloth and ashes during Lent, but I don't see that extremes are required. I do, however, cut back on it and don't play preludes or postludes. I accompany hymns and Mass parts, and also play softly during offertory and communion times. But I don't use loud reeds and keep the volume down until Holy Thursday. After that, it's back to playing softly until the Easter Vigil.
  • The organ is silent during Lent, even on Sundays, unless it is necessary. So far, the people sing very well, and it has almost never been needed. Avoiding use of the organ, according to our tradition, sets the singing apart during this season. Our voices, a cappella, have to support one another; the liturgy seems more somber and solemn. As preserved in the Eastern Churches, singing without instrumental accompaniment is our tradition now only during Lent and during funerals. It is a good tradition, because the experience is good, setting these times aside as special.

One can see that the thinking is all over the board on this. Unfortunately, this confusion and "timidity" exists among many, many priests and bishops. It could not be clearer to me — do NOT play solo organ music during Lent!

Article written 13 January 2014

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