Our annual observance of the Lenten season begins on Ash Wednesday (this year falling on 22 February), with its emphasis on repentance and contrition in the face of human sin. Since the season is one of discipline, restraint and self-examination, exuberant music is out of place (we’ll have to wait until Easter for that!), so the organ music and the manner of hymn playing will reflect this. The postludes, for example, are chorales (hymns of the Lutheran church, whose texts relate to the day’s theme), rather than larger concert works. This music serves to conclude each service with beauty and definition but without any sense of extrovert celebration, which would be out of place in the Lenten observance. Also, the word “alleluia” is not heard during Lent, as it is a word of Easter jubilation.
The five Sundays in Lent explore various aspects of God’s call to repentance, and the Gospel themes include Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, the driving out of the dumb spirit, God’s call to holiness, and Christ as both Priest and Victim. The focus on God’s calling of His people to repentance is first heard on Ash Wednesday, and continued on the first Lenten Sunday with the further reading of Jesus’ temptation after forty days of fasting in the wilderness. Because of this, we will sing two particular hymns on the Wednesday and again on the Sunday, namely “The glory of these forty days” and “Lord, who throughout these forty days”, as this is a wonderful opportunity to sing each hymn in midst of different services with their own particular focus. The former hymn has a text dating to the tenth century, and the words of the latter hymn originally appeared in a hymnal for children in 1873, yet both texts enumerate the ideas of fasting and temptation in a distinctive yet complementary manner. The fourth Sunday in Lent is traditionally known as “Laetare” (rejoice) Sunday, from the first word of the Latin introit for the day. On this day the strictness of the Lenten fast is somewhat relaxed, as this is the midpoint of the Lenten journey to Easter. Purple hangings are often replaced by rose colour, itself a shade that falls “halfway” between Lenten purple and Easter white.
Some of the great hymns for Lent are also some of the most familiar and well loved: “Dear Lord and Father of mankind” (with a text by John Greenleaf Whittier), “O for a closer walk with God”, “Turn back, o man, forswear thy foolish ways”, and the well-known “My faith looks up to thee” all explore different aspects of the Lenten message. The organ music also illustrates the many aspects of Lenten devotion, whether personal prayer or corporate liturgy. Music based on many of the hymn tunes provides the listener with the opportunity to hear a familiar tune in an artistic and more complex musical garb, and the great repertoire of the 18th-century masters provide a comprehensive musical canvas for the Lenten observance.
Next month’s music column will focus on the great drama of Holy Week, and the joyous celebration of Easter,