A Musicians Guide to Passiontide

This Sunday is the beginning of Passiontide, ‘Hebdomas  Passionis or Dominica Passionis’,  the last two weeks of Lent.

Before the first Vespers of Sunday, or the Vigil Mass of the 5th Sunday in Lent (Passion Sunday or Judica Sunday) all the crosses, statues and pictures in the Church are veiled in the church with unadorned purple cloth.  The only pictures left uncovered are the Stations of the Cross and the Stained Glass.

In the same way that the veiling of the crosses and images helps us to reflect on the greatness of Christ’s Redemption, so the music in Passiontide should be more ‘reverential’ and ‘solemn’ to help us to connect with the meaning of the final weeks of Lent.

“His death is nigh at hand: men are preparing the wood for the immolation of the new Isaac: enter into ourselves, and let not your hearts, after being touched with grace, return to their former obduracy;”

Dom Prosper Gueranger on Passiontide.

The Gloria Patri is omitted (sung during Mass after the Psalm verse of the Introit) and at the Asperges and the Lavabo)  as is Psalm 42, the prayer said at the foot of the altar in the old rite.

In our parish we sing the Ordinary, Mass XVII and Credo III without the accompaniment of the Organ. I will also bring the choir down from their exalted position in the organ loft to sit in the pews with the Congregation.  There will also be a noticeable lack of English hymns. If you have been singing the Gospel Acclamation up this point, why not have a go at singing the Tract as per the text of the Graduale Romanum but sing to a simple psalm tone. We have been using the 1926 Chants Abreges during Lent.

An absolute must for Passiontide is the “Vexilla Regis” written by the sixth century poet Fortunatus. Refererred to in the Catholic Encyclopedia as “one of the grandest hymns in the treasury of the Latin Church” (Neale)



The Vexilla Regis is the  Vespers Hymn for Passiontide. It is an incredible evocation of the pomp and ceremony of a Royal procession with it’s glorious banners held high, juxtaposed with the suffering of Christ on the cross. Written in Mode I, with a simple poetic iambic tetrameter, it ‘starts on a higher pitch than is most common in the mode’ as if the King’s procession is already underway.” Timothy Dickey, Ravi.

If you have more competent singers, look out Thomas Wingham’s  Vexilla Regis.



The best music for Passiontide  is naturally the Gregorian chants of the liturgy as prescribed in the Graduale Romanum. There has been a great deal of polyphonic music written for Passiontide and particularly for the last days of Holy Week. Passion cantatas have been composed to texts in a variety of languages.  Bach’s Passions are probably the most famous Cantatas. There are numerous settings of the Stabat Mater, (the Tartini being my current favourite.) The lessons from the Tenebrae service have been set by a variety of composers. Several composers have also set to music the last words of Christ on the Cross, e.g. Joseph Haydn (Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze) and Heinrich Schütz (Die sieben Worte Jesu Christi am Kreuz).  There is Stainer’s, ‘The Crucifixion’ which features ‘God so Loved the world.” The list goes on.


Whatever you sing in Passiontide, sing with the greatest devotion and never lose sight of the cross. It is an honour to be able to sing at Mass particularly at this special time in the Church’s year.

Lotti’s Crucifixus.


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