February 24, 2013

A Challenge to Organist/Composers

Cross with lilies
As many of my friends know, I am a big fan of the Great Vigil of Easter. (See “An Easter Vigil Memoir” on my Web site.) The Easter Vigil, which takes place on the evening before Easter Sunday, is the liturgical highlight of the church year. In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer of The Episcopal Church, the service includes between two and nine Old Testament readings recounting God’s dealings with his people. (The service itself can be found here. The prayer book offers some explanatory notes, which can be found here.) A rubric concerning the Old Testament readings says, in part
After each Lesson, the Psalm or Canticle listed, or some other suitable psalm, canticle, or hymn may be sung. A period of  silence may be kept; and the Collect provided, or some other suitable Collect, may be said.
When I was a member of the worship commission at my church, I always argued for more, rather than fewer readings, ideally, for all nine of them. In fact, I think we never included more than four. The service is long in any case, and each additional reading would seem to add an additional psalm, canticle, or hymn, in addition to a collect and period of silence. The length of the service expands quickly as scripture readings are multiplied.

At a minimum, a period of silence and a collect seem essential. Some music, as well, enriches the service, but adding, say, a hymn after each reading, is very time-consuming and, possibly, even mood-shattering. It would be nice to have the option of adding music that covers necessary movement, acts as a reflection on the reading, and contributes only a little to the overall length of the service.

The nine readings carry the following titles:
  1. The story of Creation
  2. The Flood
  3. Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac
  4. Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea
  5. God’s Presence in a renewed Israel
  6. Salvation offered freely to all
  7. A new heart and a new spirit
  8. The valley of dry bones
  9. The gathering of God’s people
There is a lot of drama here, and it would be possible to write brief organ meditations to punctuate the periods after the readings and before the collect and the silence. Such brief interludes could be used after each reading or only after some of them, with psalms, hymns, or canticles used after others.

So, here is my challenge to organist/composers: Compose a suite of nine brief interludes for the Easter Vigil, each of which is inspired by and constitutes a meditation on one of the nine readings. As far as I know, no one has ever done this. Such a suite would encourage churches to include more readings in their Vigils, as the musical interludes would not contribute over much to the length of the service.

Any takers?


  1. Lionel:

    I assume this isn't part of the rubrics, but in every church of which I have been a member, (two of which were cathedrals and all of which have had superior music programs), there is a long-standing tradition that the contrast between the darkness and the light is further dramatized by the complete lack of organ until the lights go on. It is a sort of self-disciplene to resist pulling out all of the stops until the time is right. As such, in my experience the organ does not even get turned on until the Pascha Nostrum. The Exultet and canticles are chanted unaccompanied. (This is mild compared to many Roman Catholic churches, where the organ does not play a single note between the end of the Maundy Thursday service and the Pascha Nostrum. There is no organ at all on Good Friday). So for many, using the organ prior to the ressurection moment could prove controversial.

    John Campbell

    1. John,

      Others have said much the same. My church has had music during the early part of the Vigil without lessening the contrast that you seek. At my church, in more than one way, we pull out all the stops at the Easter Acclamation. The lights go up, and the brass and organ play a magnificent fanfare.

      My suggestion is obviously intended only for use by churches that already have music after the OT lessons, as is allowed, but not demanded, by the rubrics.


Anonymous comments are not allowed. All comments are moderated by the author. Gratuitous profanity, libelous statements, and commercial messages will be not be posted.