I don’t hear people getting all giddy about being able to crank up their Lenten music, the way they did with Christmas songs when it was Christmas time (or mid-October, whatever). That’s a shame, though—Lent is a wonderful reason to really wallow in some gorgeous harmonies that just don’t sound right any other time of year. And no, the terminally lame and casually heretical “Ashes” theme song (I can’t bring myself to call it a hymn) doesn’t count.
I do wish I knew more old Lenten hymns. There is, for instance, one called “The World Is Very Evil” which intrigues me, but somehow we never seem to sing that one at the 11:15 mass.
Here is some of my favorite Lenten music:
O Sacred Head Surrounded
How tender; and the tentative resolution as the singer sits with his quiet grief at the end of each stanza is just heartbreaking.
Here’s something I discovered only recently: the Josquin Des Prez (1455-1521)motet “Miserere”—very stark and lovely, with the phrase “miserere mei, Deus” (Have mercy on me, o God”) turning up over and over throughout the piece, which is a setting of Psalm 51. Very much like a soul in prayer, returning again and again to the same thought of his own sinfulness, sometimes in pain, sometimes in sorrow, sometimes gently, sometimes with a glimmer of hope.
When Jesus Wept
I learned this canon as a child. Although it’s by the American composer William Billings (1746-1800). Sung as a straight melody, it sounds bracingly early American: you can just see the unadorned wooden chapel on the edge of the salt marshes. But sung as a canon, medieval harmonies push their way forward, lending it an unforgettable ancient beauty. I couldn’t find a better version of it than this heartfelt one sung by schoolgirls. The words (what accent is that?) are a little tough to understand in parts, so here is the text:
When Jesus wept, the falling tear
in mercy flowed beyond all bound;
when Jesus groaned, a trembling fear
seized all the guilty world around.
What Lenten music do you hope to hear this year?