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The Music of
Holy Week

By Don Roberson, Holy Week 2000, revised 2022

     The music composed for use by the Roman church for Holy Week is some of the most poignant and beautiful of all. Holy Week is the week before Easter. It begins with Palm Sunday and ends with Holy Saturday, which is the day before Easter. Holy Week is a reenactment, an expression and connection with, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
     The Gregorian chant (the plainsong) that was sung during this week is in itself very beautiful and very moving. But added to this are wonderful settings of the Holy Week liturgy by many great composers, including the greatest composers of the renaissance: Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548-c.1611), Giovanni da Palestrina (c.1525-1594), Jacob(us) Gallus/Handl (1550-1591) and Orlande de Lassus (c.1532-1594), and many others. Their musical settings of the music for Holy Week ranks near the top in the list of great compositions of Western Classical Music. 
     We will cover some of the details of the services of Holy Week to help our readers better understand this important week and its meaning in Christianity, as well as in music.

Palm Sunday

     Palm Sunday celebrates the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem.

On the next day many people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him and cried: “Hosanna, blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord.”

                                                                                                            John 12: 12 and 13

     A part of Holy Week was the singing of The Passions: the stories from the New Testament describing the final days in the life of Jesus. The Passion according to St. Matthew was sung on Palm Sunday (those of St. Mark and St. Luke will be sung on Tuesday and Wednesday). Also, there was a Palm Sunday procession.[1]

As the procession returns to the door of the church, we have a most beautiful symbolic rite. This return became, naturally, a symbol of our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem where he is to suffer. In this, people saw a conqueror coming to the place of his triumph. They thought of that entry into Jerusalem as the beginning of his victory, qui immolatus vicerit. So, they made a great ceremony of his entrance. One has the picture of a mighty victor thundering at the doors of the city: “Swing back the doors, captains of the guard; swing back, immemorial gates, to let the King enter in triumph” (Ps. 23.7). To welcome Christ, they sent a choir of boys (boys because of the Pueri Hebraeorum) to a gallery or platform above the church doors, to sing the hymn Gloria laus et honor alternately with the procession waiting below. In many mediaeval churches, the Palm Sunday gallery is a feature of the building, over the main doors. In other cases, a temporary platform was set up. The Gloria laus is, without question, one of the most splendid hymns we possess. Unlike most, it is written in a classical metre, in elegiacs. There is a pretty story about the origin of this hymn. It is said that in 828 Theodulph, Bishop of Orleans, was in prison at Angers for having conspired against the Emperor Lewis the Pious, son of Charles the Great (814-840). From his prison, he heard the Palm Sunday procession pass. Then, he lifted up his voice and sang out this hymn that he and just composed. The emperor was in the procession and was so charmed that he there and then forgave the bishop.

                                                                                   From the book Holy Week by Ronald A. Knox 

[1] Still today, Catholic religious brotherhoods (cofradía) and fraternities perform penance processions on the streets of almost every Spanish city and town during the last week of Lent, the week immediately before Easter. These associations have their origins in the Middle Age, but a number of them were created during the Baroque Period, inspired by the Counterreformation and also during the 20th and 21st centuries. (Wikipedia)


     Tenebrae, meaning darkness, describes the singing of the Matins and Lauds offices during the last three days of Holy Week. Normally these offices were sung in the wee hours of the morning in the secluded confines of the convents, but during Holy Week, these offices with their associated sublime singing were moved to the late afternoon of the day before, and the public was invited to participate. The reason that the term darkness was used was not only to describe the nature of what was taking place (the killing of the being that God sent to Earth), but also to describe the gradual extinction of the candles that took place during these services, leaving the church in total darkness. These services were powerful indeed.
     Fifteen unbleached-wax candles were lighted on a triangle called a hearse, then were extinguished gradually one-by-one after each psalm of the office was sung. The final psalm, the Miserere was then rendered in total darkness. This was the time that the famous Miserere of Allegri was sung in the Sistine Chapel. There are powerful and beautiful Misereres composed by other Renaissance and Baroque composers as well. It must have been a powerful event, if one were present in one of the beautiful European cathedrals witnessing one of the beautiful Misereres attributed to Palestrina being sung in total darkness on a Good Friday of long ago.
     The Matins and Lauds offices consisted of the singing of psalms, prayers, and other parts of the service, with a notable part being the singing of the lessons and responsories associated with these offices during the Tenebrae period. The Matins service consist of three parts, called Nocturns, and during each nocturn, three lessons and three responsories were sung in this order: Lesson 1, Responsory 1, Lesson 2, Responsory 2, Lesson 3, Responsory 3.

Maundy Thursday

After the stripping of the altars, at a suitable hour a signal is given with a clapper, and the clergy assemble for the Maundy. The prelate, or superior, wears a violet stole and cope over amice and alb, and the deacon and subdeacon are vested in white as for the Mass. The superior puts incense into the thurible, assisted by the deacon, who afterwards takes the Gospel book, and kneeling, asks a blessing of the superior. Then attended by two acolytes with lighted candles, he makes the sign of the Cross on the book, which is held by the subdeacon, censes it, and in the usual way sings the Gospel: Ante diem festum. After the Gospel has been sung the subdeacon carries the book to the superior, who kisses it. The superior now removes his cope and is girded with a towel by the deacon and subdeacon, who accompany him as he proceeds to the washing of the feet.

Those who are to be washed being ranged in order, he kneels before them in turn, and as the subdeacon hold up the right foot of each, he washes it, dries it with a towel offered by the deacon, and kisses it. Meanwhile, a number of specified antiphons are sung.

                                                         From the book Holy Week by Ronald A. Knox 

     This foot-washing ceremony was followed by the Matins service. During the first nocturn, three psalms were sung followed by three lessons and each associated responsory. The second nocturn opened with the signing of three more psalms and three more lesson/responsory pairs, then the third nocturn was sung with three more psalms and three more lesion/responsory pairs. The Office of Lauds followed with the singing of three psalms, the Song of Moses, another psalm, then the Canticle of Zachary. 

All the candles in the triangular candlestick, except the one at the top, have [now] been extinguished during the singing of the Psalms. While the Benedictus is being sung, the six candles on the altar are put out, one at the end of every second verse. All other lights in the church are also extinguished. When the Antiphon Traditor is repeated, the reaming candle is taken from the top of the triangular candlestick and hidden under the Epistle side of the altar. All then keel.

                                                                       From the book Holy Week by Ronald A. Knox 

     Now the Christus factus Est was sung (there are many beautiful settings of this text), followed by the Pater noster, spoken silently, then the psalm Miserere was repeated in a low voice, followed by a prayer. Then the Qui tecum and a few other items were said in silence. Finally, a noise was made, the lighted candle brought from beneath the altar, and all rose and left the church in silence.

Good Friday

     Good Friday differed greatly from other holy days. For one thing, the mass was not said on Good Friday. Instead, a Mass of the Presanctified was sung, which included the Passion of St. John sung either using the original Gregorian version, or one of the wonderful settings by Victoria or Lassus with alternating plainsong and polyphonic settings. Following this was the veneration of the cross, filled with ancient and beautiful chants, and perhaps including one of the glorious settings of Pópule meus by Palestrina or Victoria, and perhaps the chorus Crux fidélis, inter omnes by Palestrina. Following this, the beautiful hymn Vexílla Regis was sung. There are beautiful settings of this hymn, with verses set in alternating Gregorian chant and polyphony, by both Victoria and Palestrina.

Holy Saturday

     Holy Saturday had a beautiful Matins and Lauds service, similar to those presented on the two previous days, but using different music and liturgy (each of the three days had its own Matins and Lauds settings). Often the lessons and responsories that were sung were settings by Gallus, Palestrina, Victoria, or Lassus, or by other Renaissance composers for that matter. There are true musical treasures in these compositions. The special service used on Holy Saturday is a Blessing of the Paschal Candle, the chanting of the Prophecies, and the Blessing of the Font.

Easter Sunday

     Holy Week ended with Holy Saturday. Easter Sunday then rang in the new morning with the celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus. The music of Easter was joyful and celebrant, in contrast to the sprit of sorrow during the week before.
     One of the great treasures of Easter was the singing of the Gregorian sequence Victamae Paschales Laudes, or one of the various polyphonic settings with alternating chant and choral parts. In the protestant church, the spirit of Easter was often celebrated by the performance of the glorious Cantata Christ Lag in Todesbanden composed by Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach based his cantata on Martin Luther’s hymn of the same name, and Luther’s hymn was in turn his own adaptation of the Gregorian sequence Victamae Paschales Laudes.