Essential Music for Lent

Not a “top ten” list here, but a brief list of essential Lenten music every church musician–singer or instrumentalist–really must know.  In some of these I don’t give specifics as to a particular piece of music, but I would assume that any musician working in any genre would have these texts somewhere in the repertoire. A parish with an “eclectic” music ministry would proabably have a few of many of these.

1. Kyrie Eleison. My parish uses a setting adapted from the plainsong Litany of the Saints and presented in Gather Comprehensive as #175B. Every cantor should have this setting or something similar and easy in his or her repertoire. It should be familiar enough that if a singer in a choir were asked to lead a group in prayer, this might come to their lips immediately.

2. Parce Domine. Regardless of genre, any Catholic choir or ensemble should know this by heart. Any serious singer should be able to use the chant tone for the verses to expand beyond the select verses of Psalm 51 a hymnal might provide.

3. Another setting of Psalm 51. Any serious Catholic choir should have at least one setting of this text in its repertoire. Ideally, maybe even three or four from different periods: polyphony, baroque, classical/romantic, and something from the last century. Any cantor should know a few settings–minimum of one. And no Catholic choir or ensemble of any size can really say it has arrived without a good setting of this essential penitential psalm.

4. A setting of Psalm 130. The Latin title De profundis may be better-known than the psalm number.

5. A setting of Psalm 91. These three psalms are assigned by the Lectionary as “common psalms” for the season. They can be used in place of psalms of the day, presumably if your parish, group, or choir doesn’t know a particular setting of the psalm of the day. But even if you do, these three psalms represent the best of the Psalter for a harmonization of the themes of Lent.

6. A hymn or song about baptism. Or maybe a good chunk of the parish repertoire. Lent’s taproot as a period of preparation for baptism cannot be ignored or set aside for the inward-looking penitential sensibility. David is part of Lent, but so is Saint Paul. A hymn like “Lift High The Cross,” is nearly ideal, connecting the cross with our baptismal call, like in verse three:

Each newborn follower of the Crucified bears on the brow the seal of Him who died.

7. A hymn or song about the Christian apostolate. Almsgiving is a huge part of Lent–one of the three pillars. A piece like Ricky Manalo’s “InThese Days of Lenten Journey” is essential for any serious parish. The refrain, in case you are unfamiliar:

In these days of Lenten journey we have seen and we have heard the call to sow justice in the lives of those we serve.

If a choir or community can’t sing about the mission of the Christian in the world during Lent, I would question why the expression of such a responsibility takes second fiddle to traditional Lenten fare about, again, personal penitence. Is Lent only about the self?

What else would you add, either a community favorite, or a personal choice?

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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2 Responses to Essential Music for Lent

  1. I think that the Propers, songs and hymns specific to this weekend, Todd, should be added. Namely, those portraying the Transfiguration of Christ and God’s annuciation to the witnesses.

  2. Thom says:

    I only last weekend heard “In These Days of Lenten Journey.” I love the refrain, and the text, but the verses seem to drag a bit. Nice hymn overall, however.

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