Lenten reflections from the Cathedral

By Dr Christopher McElroy

Lent began late this year, Ash Wednesday falling on 1 March. During this liturgical season Catholics all around the world silence the great word of joy, 'Alleluia', which returns at the Easter Vigil. Musically speaking we also try to reduce the use of the organ in the liturgy at the Cathedral, primarily for accompanying congregational singing. Silence thus plays a greater role in our Lenten liturgies. We are, of course, blessed to have some of the most cavernous acoustics in the world in our Cathedral, and silence, reverberations and echoes take on a special sound in this space.
Both Advent and Lent, as penitential seasons, are traditionally broken up by the insertion of special 'joy-filled' Sundays. The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally known as 'Gaudete' Sunday, and the fourth Sunday of Lent as 'Laetare' Sunday. Both these Latin titles (taken from the respective introits of the liturgy) translate into English as joy.
Here in England, Laetare Sunday always falls on the same day as Mothering Sunday, and it has been our tradition for the girl choristers to sing Pergolesi’s 'Stabat Mater' at Evening Prayer. The Stabat Mater is the story of Mary's grief at the foot of the cross, watching her son dying. Such an emotional text has moved many composers to dig deep into their creative impulse to set such sorrow to music.
Each Wednesday at 3.30 pm, BBC Radio 3 carries a live broadcast of a choral liturgy from one of our cathedrals, churches or chapels. Ordinarily this takes the form of Anglican Choral Evensong, following the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. On occasions, however, the service comes from a Roman Catholic cathedral; this will be the case on 29 March when Choral Evening Prayer will be broadcast live from our Metropolitan Cathedral.
The Cathedral Choir will sing music by Kenneth Leighton ('Solus ad Victimam': a setting of a poem on the theme of eternal redemption by 12th-century philosopher/ theologian Peter Abelard), William Byrd (the motet 'Ne irascaris, Domine': one of Byrd's masterpieces and one of his most forceful utterances inspired by the fate of the Catholic Church in England at the time of the Reformation) and Thomas Tallis ('The Lamentations of Jeremiah').