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CNP Feedback - Organ Music during Lent?

by Gary D. Penkala

Q. Dear CNP:

Excuse me for seeming quite thick, yet, what do you mean in saying, "During the entire Lenten season, the organ should just support the singing?" I have heard conflicting information saying the organ must be off during all of Lent, or that it's O.K. to play the organ, or that nowhere did our American bishops stop the organ playing completely during the Triduum; that was only a tradition. I want to understand the clear truth, so I can do what is right. I personally do not use any accompaniment during Gloria to Gloria on the Triduum, yet, what about the other Sundays of Lent? Laetare Sunday? Please just tell me if the organ should be off or on; the "supporting organ" line is unclear to me. Thank you!

New York Organist.

A. Dear New York Organist:

Your question about organ music during Lent bears on an issue that is indeed often misunderstood. Let me help to clarify what is involved:

The only official direction that we as musicians and liturgists have regarding how liturgy is to be celebrated comes from the rubrics contained in official liturgical books ("rubric" coming from the Latin rubrum, referring to the "red" ink in which they were printed). While other documents (like Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship) may comment on or revise (within limits) the way we celebrate liturgy, the official books relating to the Mass are the Roman Missal, the Ceremonial of Bishops, and any particular "ritual books" that might have bearing on the Mass (e.g. the Anointing of the Sick during Mass, the special RCIA rites, the funeral liturgy).

The lastest revision of the Roman Missal, the Third Edition, was promulgated in 2002, and slightly amended in 2008. Its introduction, the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM), was released concurrently with the Missal in its Latin form, and was immediately translated and became effective at that point. This brought about some rubrical changes in the Mass around 2003 [e.g. standing sooner after the Offertory prayers]. The major changes to liturgy celebrated in English came, however, almost 10 years later, when the translation of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal was completed and implemented in Advent 2011.

The Roman Missal 2002, as well as the revised version from 2008 and the re-translation of the GIRM and rubrics effected in 2010, assimilate the rubrics from various documents that had been published since the Second Edition, including those from the Circular Letter on Lent and the Triduum (1988) and the Ceremonial of Bishops (1989). Concerning the issue at hand, it speaks about organ music in a much more detailed way than the previous GIRM, and certainly indicates how the organ should be treated.

The Roman Missal presents in very clear format the effects that the seasons have on the liturgy, e.g. no "Alleluia" during Lent, subdued organ music during Advent. About organ music during Lent the document says,

During Lent, it is not permitted to decorate the altar with flowers, and the use of musical instruments is allowed only so as to support the singing. Nevertheless, Laetare Sunday (the Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities and Feasts are exceptions to this rule. [Lent, rubric #4]

What this means is, there should be no solo organ music (prelude, offertory, recessional, postlude, etc.) during Lent. Musical instruments (including the organ) may be used only for accompaniment ... for hymns, responses, choral or vocal accompaniment. As noted, this rule does not come into play on Laetare Sunday or on Solemnities (like Saint Joseph, Annunciation) or Feasts (like the Chair of Saint Peter).

On the issue of organ music from Gloria to Gloria (Holy Thursday to Easter Vigil), the Roman Missal says, "During the same period [Gloria-Gloria], the organ and other musical instruments may be used only so as to support the singing." [Holy Thursday: Mass of the Lord's Supper, rubric #7] This does no more than officially extend the rules for Lent (which has ended prior to the Holy Thursday Mass) through the Triduum. This would be the minimum expectation (using organ only for accompaniment). If a parish wanted to go beyond this (the traditional position, and one I would strongly advocate) and turn the organ off completely from Gloria to Gloria, there is nothing in any document that prohibits this. The rubrics only tell us when the organ should not be played; they don't ever specify times when the organ must be played.

The tradition of not using the organ at all during this period has certain benefits:

  1. It clearly delineates this time as being separate from Lent. Gone are the violet vestments; our attention is now focused on a most special three-day period (Triduum) which is treated liturgically as one grand celebration, beginning with the Introit on Holy Thursday and ending with Evening Prayer on Easter Sunday.
  2. It allows the most meditative and introspective congregational singing of the year. How poorly we treat our congregations with a constant barrage of organ accompaniment, sometimes to the point that they can't even hear themselves over the organ. Even worse is the despicable, ubiquitous, demeaning practice of positioning a cantor in front of a microphone every time the congregation is asked to sing anything! I would say, at least during this Gloria-Gloria period, to turn the organ off, turn the microphone off, have a good, well-rehearsed choir present, and finally let the people hear their own sung praise! The unifying benefit of corporate singing comes from relying on each other, not from mimicking an amplified, electronic voice.

The American bishops have occasionally commented on the official liturgical books in their own documents. While Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (2007) speaks about organ music more than either of its two predecessors, Music in Catholic Worship (1972) or Liturgical Music Today (1982), it does not address the issue of the organ during the seasons of Advent or Lent, letting the clear directives in the Roman Missal speak for themselves.

I hope this clarifies what the rubrics say, and is helpful in playing – or not playing – the organ at Mass.

Gary Penkala
CanticaNOVA Publications

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