Holy Week and the Music of Foreshadowing and Reflection

Holy Week and the Music of Foreshadowing and Reflection

We are about to experience the holiest, most poignant, effecting and affecting week in the Episcopal Liturgy.  To me, these days are the most profound, as they contain the constant back and forth of foreshadowing and reflection.  No two Holy Weeks that I have ever programmed for different denominations including Episcopal have been identical, and in this my first year at St. Paul’s, I must say that this year’s services are the ones I am most excited about.  You have a unique energy as a parish with unusual traditions, and I try to tread lightly and discern what they are, but not so lightly that I do not make a footprint. 

Your Maundy Thursday service in particular is unique in the acting out of the Lord’s Supper at Sherrill Hall in preparation for the stripping of the Altar upstairs in the sanctuary.  It goes from simple and folksy with round songs to something quite different.  I was struck by this duality and began to think on the many dualities of the Passion story: the praying and soul searching, the pledging of faithfulness by the disciples, the humility of Jesus in the washing of the feet, the ultimate betrayal, the stripping of garments and dignity, and the crucifixion itself.  I began to wonder, how could I reflect these in the music?  There had to be more to it than the obvious of just programming the ‘right hymns at the right time,’ so I began to formulate something that would not only serve the liturgy but continually reflect back to what we can now see as a foreshadowing. 

On Palm Sunday you will hear our combined choirs and the entire Sunday School kids participate in the procession and opening anthem after the acclamation.  Later the famous text, Ride On, Ride On In Majesty, normally heard in a joyous procession, is sung as a sequence hymn before the dramatic reading of the Passion to an alternate tune that you are not used to hearing.  Contained within this tune is already a sadness that one would not notice in the onset, if not pointed out.  From here on, after all the gaiety and “Hosannas” and shouts of joy, we are now to the ‘point of no return’ as the story unfolds.  We hear Ride On again in an offertory anthem set by Grayston Ives after the Passion story, and in this version, with a slightly altered text, it further increases the ominous feeling of what is about to happen.

On Maundy Thursday, the service starts downstairs, creating an intimate and familial setting beginning with the simple version of “Ubi caritas” from your Wonder, Love and Praise book, highlighting love and humility, continuing with the singing of rounds and familiar tunes.  When we move upstairs, the choir will continue with “Ubi caritas,” not normally heard after the washing of the feet is over, but this time the setting is by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo for choir with through-composed ‘improvised’ piano solo.  This music, relatively new, written in 1999, is a mix of a rather new-age feel combined with a traditional-type choral setting.  To me, this ideal meditative feel reminds us of the ‘simple’ cherished moments of the Last Supper, to the acts of love and humility Jesus showed in the washing of the feet, to the chanting of the 22nd Psalm during the stripping of the altar, reminding us of the betrayal of Jesus, falling into the hands of those who would strip him of his garments before the Crucifixion.  I chose to have the choir sing this year instead of everyone reciting Psalm 22, as I felt this chant setting by Samuel Wesley, in the same minor key of the previous anthem, is not only an ideal pairing and escalation of the story, but also a way for you to sit and watch the stripping of the altar without having to read the Psalm aloud.  I want you to hear, feel and know this duality through this sonic experience.  If you wish to pray the psalm silently to yourself this is wonderful, but I wanted you to get the deepest effect out of this part of the liturgy.

On Good Friday, we will speak the same Psalm 22 that was sung the night before, and all the hymns will be without the organ, which will have fallen silent until Easter morning.

On Easter Sunday, we have an orchestra complete with strings, trumpet, harpsichord, organ and timpani.  There will be much pomp and circumstance with solos, fanfares, orchestra-accompanied hymns and of course a parish-wide participation in Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” at the end of the service for the Postlude.  But take note of the serene communion anthem by Randall Thompson. It is as if the angels in Heaven are all singing from their lofty heights not only expressing their joy at the risen Christ, but awaiting his ascension.

I urge you to please give generously to the “Music and Flowers” special collection, and please give a word of thanks to a chorister, both large and small, when you see them.  They have worked very hard and diligently and have been so committed to this process to make Holy Week and Easter as wonderful an experience as it can be for all of us.

God bless you all!

Gigi Mitchell-Velasco

Director of Music