For the church music director, the two big holidays of the liturgical year — Christmas and Easter — are fraught with peril. Expectations are high, and there’s often a dizzying array of pieces to choose from. Finding just the right selections for a choir’s capabilities, though, can be a challenge.
During the few years I served as a church music director a long time ago in a galaxy far away, I well remember how happy I was to have found a sweet set of Renaissance pieces with little percussion instrument parts that I knew my volunteer choir could handle for Christmas. And I also remember my disappointment when they thought the pieces odd and not at all what they associated Christmas sounds with! Today when I look back at that Christmas, I smile broadly. I sing in a volunteer church choir now, and I know our own director puts up with similar grumblings from us about this or that piece.
Although the Easter preparation includes all the Holy Week music, I always found Christmas music preparation the most anxious and the heaviest work load. Choir would prepare about twenty minutes of music to be sung before the service, then have an anthem ready for the service itself. It all had to happen on that one night.
Holy Week, at least, is broken up into more, oh, digestible pieces. There’s Maundy Thursday (with a rehearsal ahead of the service), Good Friday (with a rehearsal ahead of the service), and Easter (with a rehearsal ahead of the service). So, while you’re preparing a full slate of musical selections, you don’t have to do them all at once on one night. You have the chance to refresh your musical memory, to go over problem spots, before each service.
When I sang in a professional choir at a church in Baltimore, Holy Week services varied little from year to year, but the music was transcendent. We sang Maurice Durufle’s sublime rendition of “Ubi Caritas” each Maundy Thursday, and Antonio Lotti’s eight-part “Crucifixus” each Good Friday. Several years in a row we sang William Byrd’s lovely and difficult (rhythmically) “Haec dies” on Easter itself. (Links are below.)
On Maundy Thursday, the organist would switch off the organ at a certain point, and it wouldn’t be heard again until a powerful, improvised introduction to the Gloria at the Saturday Easter vigil. Until then, we sang everything a capella — hymns, chants, anthems. One of the basses was tasked with giving us pitches softly, using a pitch pipe.
All of that unaccompanied singing created a solemn and somber mood, making the exuberant sounds of the majestic organ all the more wonderful at the Easter vigil — it was as if you were hearing the organ for the first time, bringing you, in a small way, into communion with those who, on that first Easter, found brightness after silence and darkness.
That same kind of exuberant joy shines through the reintroduction of “alleluias” after the forty days of Lent, during which they go missing. At my current church, the rector occasionally, during his Easter sermons, would proclaim the Easter “Alleluia! The Lord is risen,” look at the choir and know, without doubt, we’d enthusiastically reply, “The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia!” with no prompting.
This year, our choir’s Easter anthem was “You Are the New Day,” a piece with a pleasant undulating melody and warm harmony, and words that sometimes…seem as odd to me as those Renaissance pieces I chose years ago must have sounded to that choir. The composer of “New Day” apparently wrote the piece after experiencing personal difficulties and acutely fearing nuclear war. So some of its lines have a whiff of apocalyptic warning.
Was there grumbling in the choir stalls? I won’t tell. 🙂 But I will say that we sang with all the joy in our hearts and discovered this piece has special warm meaning for our rector and his wife. Since this is his last Easter with us before retirement, it was a musical gift I’m sure everyone in the choir was happy to offer them and the rest of the church.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her latest novel, Fall from Grace, has been called a “novel for our times” by Midwest Book Review.