Music for The Great Vigil of Easter and Easter Day

Music for The Great Vigil of Easter


Sicut cervus– Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594)


Ten readings from the Old Testament are provided for this night, each with a thematically related response in the form of a psalm or canticle. The response for the reading from Ezekiel 36 (“I will sprinkle clean water upon you”) is from the first several verses of Psalm 42; in some traditions this text is sung during the procession to the font. Set in this instance by the Italian Renaissance composer Palestrina, Sicut cervus is likely the best known of his motets. In it is embedded the beauty and dignity for which Palestrina’s music is known and judged to be the ideal of Renaissance counterpoint. The motet’s polyphonic flow and gentle melodic arches contain a quiet drama. While the motet’s word-painting is not overt, neither is it hidden. As the hart seeks the pure waters of the spring, the source of the flowing stream so the heart seeks the purifying, regenerating waters of the Spirit, the living stream, the fountain of life. Could sicut cervus / servus desideratpossibly have had the same homonymic association in the original Latin as “hart / heart” does in English?

Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum,

ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.
Sitivit anima mea ad Deum fortem vivum:

quando veniam et apparebo ante faciem Dei?
Fuerunt mihi lacrymae meae panes die ac nocte,

dum dicitur mihi quotidie: Ubi est Deus tuus?

Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks:

so longeth my soul after thee, O God.
My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God:

when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?
My tears have been my meat day and night:

while they daily say unto me, Where is now thy God?


Alleluia– Randall Thompson (1899-1984)


After the proclamation of the Gloriaon this night, one of the hallmarks of our celebration is the return of “Alleluia” (literally, “Praise the Lord”) in a way that seems to make up exuberantly for its suppression during Lent. The threefold Great Alleluia precedes the Gospel, most of the Proper chants (introit, offertory, communion) in the ensuring Easter season include Alleluias, sometimes doubled, and in liturgies throughout the Octave of Easter the Alleluia is doubled at the dismissal.

Randall Thompson was an American composer, particularly known for his choral works. Alleluia, his most popular and recognizable work, was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky, the Russian-born conductor, composer, double-bassist and director of the Tanglewood Festival. In the summer of 1940, Koussevitzky requested a “fanfare” for the festival, but because of the war in Europe, Thompson felt that a jubilant Alleluia was out of place, and composed a quiet, introspective piece, in mostly soft dynamics with only a single fortissimo outburst near the end. The harmonies are simple throughout, although some subtle chromatic inflections give the work a special flavor. The work is mostly homophonic (all voices singing the same text more or less simultaneously), which makes the few contrapuntal passages all the more striking. The text consists of the word “Alleluia” repeated over and over, concluding with a single “Amen.” Perhaps for us, in the strange Spring of 2020, this piece speaks with a quiet, introspective but nonetheless reassuring voice of the irrepressible power of the Resurrection.



Music for Easter Day


Victimae paschali laudes –plainsong


This ancient hymn is one of the five great sequences remaining in use today. The sequence is a medieval addition to the Proper of the Mass which is sung immediately following the Alleluia-Verse and before the Gospel on certain special occasions, Easter Day being one of them. As with many of these medieval works, the authorship of this sequence has been ascribed to various writers; however, it is widely thought that Victimae paschali laudeswas written by Wipo (d. 1048), a native of Burgundy who was a priest and poet. It is found, with an English translation, in our Common Praise(blue) hymnal at 241.

Victimae paschali laudes immolent Christiani.
Agnus redemit oves: Christus innocens Patri

reconciliavit peccatores.
Mors et vita duello conflixere mirando:

dux vitae mortuus, regnat vivus.
Dic nobis Maria, quid vidisti in via?
Sepulcrum Christi viventis, et gloriam vidi resurgentis:
Angelicos testes, sudarium, et vestes.
Surrexit Christus spes mea: praecedet suos in Galilaeam.
Scimus Christum surrexisse a mortuis vere:
tu nobis, victor Rex, miserere.
Amen. Alleluia.


Christians, to the Paschal victim offer your thankful praises.

A lamb, the sheep redeeming: Christ, who only is sinless,

reconciles a lost world to the Father.

Death and life have contended in that combat stupendous:

The Prince of life, who died, reigns immortal.

Tell, Mary, we will hearken, what you saw in the garden:

“The tomb of Christ, who is living; the glory of Jesus’ resurrection;

Bright angels attesting, the shroud and napkin resting.

For Christ my hope is arisen: to Galilee he will go before you.”

Christ indeed from death is risen, our new life obtaining;

Have mercy, victor King, ever reigning!

Amen. Alleluia!


Choral Improvisé sur le “Victimae paschali”– Charles Tournemire (1870-1939)


Charles Tournemire was a French organist and composer who is mainly remembered for his organ music, published or improvised. In 1930 Tournemire recorded five organ improvisations on the great Cavaillé-Coll organ of Ste. Cothilde in Paris, where he was organist from 1894 until his death. These improvisations were later painstakingly transcribed by Maurice Duruflé from 78-rpm discs, and are now among Tournemire’s best known works. A fervent Roman Catholic, his improvisations were often rooted in Gregorian chant, as is this work, based on the sequence for Easter (above). Tournemire developed a new musical language, combining the modality of medieval and early baroque music with the modern resources of chromaticism and polytonality. Tournemire here seizes on the intrinsic dramatic potential of the text and paints it in living musical colour. The piece is about ten minutes long but well worth a full sonic immersion; a pair of headphones or a robust set of loudspeakers are helpful!


Jesus Christ is Risen Today– Text and music: Lyra Davidica, 1708.


A joyous Easter carol, this is based on three anonymous Latin verses beginning “Surrexit Christus hodie”, a trope on Benedicamus Domino. It was translated for Lyra Davidica, an important collection of 31 hymns and 25 tunes, largely from Latin and German sources. The construction of this tune gives due prominence to the Alleluias. We pray with confidence that we will again raise this hymn together to the glory of the risen Christ!

Jesus Christ is risen today, alleluia!
our triumphant holy day, alleluia!
who did once, upon the cross, alleluia!
suffer to redeem our loss. Alleluia!

Hymns of praise then let us sing, alleluia!
unto Christ our heavenly King, alleluia!
who endured the cross and grave, alleluia!
sinners to redeem and save. Alleluia!

But the pains which he endured, alleluia!
our salvation have procured; alleluia!
now above the sky he’s king, alleluia!
where the angels ever sing. Alleluia!