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Parish music directors plan for ‘reverent, meaningful’ Triduum liturgies

The adult singers of STM Choir at St. Thomas More Parish in Paducah rehearse in February 2020. COURTESY OF JAMES HESS


While Easter won’t arrive until April 12 this year, parish music directors are already preparing for what one music director calls “the most important week in the life of the Church” – the Triduum, which comprises Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

“We begin looking at music for Lent about two weeks before Lent begins,” explained James Wells, the music director at St. Stephen Cathedral in Owensboro, in a Feb. 14 email to The Western Kentucky Catholic. He said the cathedral’s musicians begin reviewing the Triduum music almost as soon as Lent begins.

Wells said it requires great attention to details and planning to “offer liturgies which we hope will be reverent and meaningful worship experiences.”

This is also true for James Hess, the director of sacred music and liturgical ministry at St. Thomas More Parish in Paducah.

“The STM Choir, which currently numbers 28 singers, provides music each Sunday, September through June, in addition to Christmas, Ash Wednesday, the annual Tenebrae Service and the Triduum Liturgies,” said Hess in a Feb. 13 email.

James Wells, the music director at St. Stephen Cathedral in Owensboro, plays the organ during the Good Friday service on April 19, 2019. ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD/WKC FILE PHOTO

Hess said that typically, music at St. Thomas More is rehearsed two to three weeks prior to its use, though more difficult pieces may require additional rehearsal time.

“Service music, including setting of texts for Holy Week and Easter, are chosen so they can be used for several (or sometimes many!) years,” said Hess.

For example, on Ash Wednesday the St. Thomas More choir sings “Come Back to the Lord” by Leo Nestor during the imposition of ashes. Hess said this piece includes the antiphon from the Book of Joel, and verses drawn from a fourth-century text.

“We make every effort to choose texts and music that are worthy of the liturgy, are accessible to the congregation and will stand the test of time,” said Hess.

Talented, fast learners

Wells complimented the cathedral’s music ministry, which he said features “great musicians and fast learners.”

“We mainly have one choir that sings throughout the Church year, as well as a strong group of cantors who minister on a rotating schedule,” said Wells.

Wells said when he plans out his music he always begins with the scripture readings for the celebration or the rituals taking place “so that the selections reflect the messages of the scripture readings.”

When it comes to Lent and the Triduum, Wells mostly leans toward the “well-known, expected pieces” – “I don’t think I’ve ever been to an Easter Sunday Mass in which we didn’t sing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” he added – but he tries to sprinkle in a few new pieces over the course of a season.

The children’s choir at St. Thomas More Parish in Paducah rehearses on Feb. 2, 2017. COURTESY OF JAMES HESS

“There are so many composers releasing new music daily that it’s important not to overlook music that has been written much more recently,” said Wells. “I think it’s important to practice a healthy balance.”

Hess said that in addition to the STM Choir, his parish also has a children’s choir of about 16 young people, a liturgical hand bell choir, and three cantors who rotate through the Spanish Masses.

St. Thomas More tends to utilize a repertoire of music that has built up over the years, which Hess credits to both current pastor, Fr. Brad Whistle, and previous pastor, Fr. J. Patrick Reynolds, for building and maintaining the parish’s music program.

“This year we are drawing music from known repertoire for Lent and the Triduum but plan on singing all new choral pieces for Eastertide,” said Hess.

Season of prayer

Lent and the Triduum are certainly times of prayer and growth, but Hess and Wells admit they are also times of great busyness for parish music/liturgy directors.

Wells said the Triduum liturgies at St. Stephen Cathedral involve scheduling and directing nearly 270 liturgical ministers, which includes practices for altar servers and musicians; and coordinating with the art and environment committee, liturgical coordinators and sacristans “who work behind the scenes to help make these liturgies flow smoothly.”

Hess said the most difficult part for him is making sure all of the singers are available, since this time of year always coincides with spring break and other activities. Regardless, “our musicians are very committed and they make every effort to be available for rehearsals and singing activities,” he said.

Hess said he relies considerably on the expertise of his fellow staff members Derrick Anderson, the associate director of music; and Kelly Wiggins Groves, St. Thomas More’s children’s choir director who also serves as the parish’s director of family life.

Wells added that a parish’s ministry is never limited to the efforts of the clergy and pastoral team, and that he knows the cathedral’s community is “deeply appreciative” of the service of their many volunteers.

“The rewards for the hard work and attention to detail are realized when we experience beautiful and uplifting liturgies,” said Wells.

Hess said there are “innumerable personal rewards” in working in church music, but for him, the most uplifting is when the choir takes ownership of a text and, through musical phrasing and nuance, expresses to and prays with the assembly!”

“It is most thrilling!” he said.

Originally printed in the March 2020 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.

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