MUSIC FOR LENT – Don’t mention the ‘A’ word…

The season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Thursday when the Triduum begins. To reflect the solemnity of this penitential season there are rules concerning the music of the liturgy which must be strictly adhered to in both the Extraordinary and Ordinary Forms of The Mass.


(Most of this might be so obvious to the Catholic-wise, but when l started running our church choir three years ago, l knew none of this, so this is written for the me’s of this world.)

Part One:  The RUBRICS

from the Latin rubrum, referring to the “red” ink in which the instructions were printed

1. THE ORGAN. 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 4th Sunday in Lent is not enough for you, head to a church on St Joseph’s on the 19th March or the Annunciation on the 25th March and you might just be in luck for a spot of Bach.

NB. These rules for the organ do not apply to Benediction.


In the Extraordinary Form, the Alleluia is replaced with the Tract. These can be  long and tricky chants to sing but there are simplified versions available online.

In the Ordinary Form there are several options. In the Lectionary, there are four phrases to replace the Alleluia. You can choose from hundreds of musical settings of these but be careful to provide sheets for the congregation with the response written out. In my limited experience, it takes a long time for the congregation to pick up a new melody and text at this stage in the mass, (they like the Paschal Alleluia) so keep to the same setting for all of Lent. Another choice according to the IGRM (IGRM 2002 n.62(b)) specifically provides for the Graduale Romanum  Tract in place of the Missal psalm verse during Lent, but its form is permissive not compulsory. This year, we are going to sing the Attende Domine, the Lenten sequence, each week before the Gospel. (IGRM 2002 n.64: “Sequentia … est ad libitum, canatur ante Alleluia.)

I have been advised thanks to a commentator, that the Attende Domine is not a sequence which of course it isn’t, and therefore should not sung before the Gospel. We shall be singing the tract as per the GR to Psalm tone II.

Remember that during Lent, the Alleluia should not be sung anywhere in the Mass. This includes hymns. If in doubt, check all the verses before you select a hymn for Mass. No “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus!”


During the last fortnight of Lent, the Gloria Patri is omitted from the office and from the Mass, particularly important to remember if you are singing the Introit at Mass (the only time you are likely to be singing a Gloria Patri…)


A Missa Cantata in the Extraordinary Form could not be more straightforward. You can pick up the Liber Usualis and start singing if you are brilliant Plainchant scholar or simply head to the Internet to find more simplified versions of  the Propers. The point is, the music/text is prescribed.

The Ordinary Form should not be any different…..

GIRM 41. “Gregorian Chant holds pride of place because it is proper to the Roman liturgy. Other types of sacred music, in particular, Polyphony, are in no way excluded provided that they correspond to the spirit of the liturgical action and that they foster the participation of all the faithful “

This is an instruction for the Ordinary Form of the Mass, not the Extraordinary form., and yet since this was written, hymns have become ‘pride of place’ in the liturgy and not chant.

How to change this? Firstly, in the Graduale Romanum/Gregorian Missal you will find the correct Propers for each Sunday Mass.  Simply reading the texts will give you a greater understanding of how the liturgy develops throughout Lent (Head for the Gregorian Missal rather than the Graduale Romanum  if, like me, your Latin isn’t terribly good.) Remember Lent is a season of preparation and the music should reflect this.

Lent is  a perfect time to try to introduce some chant. Start with the Communion Propers which are the simplest and shortest to learn. ( In our parish at this stage in the Mass, the singers are drowned out by the sound of footsteps on newly varnished wooden floorboards  as people go to Communion. This is useful to know if you are singing a new piece of music…) If you are not capable of singing the Propers or the Celebrant has let it known that he prefers hymns, try to choose a hymn or a simple piece of plainchant that reflects the themes of each Proper, ‘that corresponds to the spirit of the liturgical action.’

Remember Lent is an ideal time to lose a hymn or two but in doing so you must be careful not to lose the congregation. You must “foster the participation of the faithful.”  If you are going to introduce new music and especially if it is in Latin, always makes sure you have handouts with the translation on them. REMEMBER to be careful that you aren’t illegally photocopying music under copyright -the music might be ancient but the typesetting is most probably still under a graphic copyright. The Parish Book of Chant is a brilliant resource (See the sidebar for a PDF of this book) and it is copyright free. Alleluia!!!  (Shhh…  except not in Lent.)

The following list is a guide to the music for Lent that we have developed in our parish in the last few years. If you are introducing something new to the parish like the Attende Domine, try and sing it regularly as it may take a few masses to encourage the congregation to join in but they will…  just give it time.

Plainchant  : Attende Domine

Parce Domine,

Audi Benigne Conditor (Vespers for the first section of Lent)

Vexilla Regis (Vespers hymn for Passiontide.)

Ave Regina Caelorum. (Marian Antiphon for the Season.)

Stabat Mater   (for Stations of the Cross)

Hymns that can easily be sung in parts or sung unaccompanied:

God of Mercy and Compassion

Lord Jesus Think on Me

From the depths of sin and sadness

O Lord Hear my Prayer (Taize)

Passiontide Hymns:

O Sacred Head Sore Wounded.

When l survey the wondrous cross.

Simple Polyphony:

God so loved the world – Chilcott  (Easier than the Stainer)

Miserere  (Lotti)   – the First couple of pages.

Hide not thy face – Farrant  (We are singing 3pt adaptation of this..)