Every year there is debate about whether or not the organ may be used during Advent and Lent, and especially regarding its use during the Sacred Triduum. This article is largely based on a column published in the Society of St Gregory journal Music and Liturgy in 2011.
It is interesting to see how legislation on this controversial subject has varied over the years. Traditionally, it has been thought that the organ has been forbidden during Advent and Lent. However, the position has never been nearly as clear-cut as that.
For example, in 1673 the Sacred Congregation of Rites confirmed that the organ could be used on Gaudete and Laetare Sundays (the 3rd Sunday of Advent and the 4th Sunday of Lent). This was confirmed again in 1839, when it was stated that the then prohibition in the Ceremonial of Bishops did not hold. Other exceptions were also noted in 1741 — it was permissible for the organ to be played on the Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima, even if the liturgical colour is already a Lenten violet, because, according to the Congregation, the organ could be played at every Mass [sic] where the deacon and the subdeacon at the altar wore the dalmatic and tunicle — and in 1753 — the organ could be used during Votive Masses of the Blessed Virgin and at Vespers during the Litany of Loreto, which took place every Saturday, including Advent and Lent.
However, in 1847, 1868 and 1883 the Congregation confirmed the prohibition on the Sundays of Advent and Lent except Gaudete and Laetare Sundays.
This was broadly the position up to the Congregation’s Instruction De Sacra Musica et Liturgia of 1958, which clarified as follows:
A prohibition on use of the organ during all liturgical actions (except Benediction) during Advent and Lent, plus from Septuagesima to Quinquagesima, with the following exceptions:
(a) “on feasts of obligation and holidays (except Sundays), as well as on the feast of the principal patron of the place, of the titular or dedication anniversary of the particular church, or of the founder of the religious congregation; or if some extraordinary solemnity is being kept”.
(b) Gaudete and Laetare Sundays and the Chrism Mass.
(c) “The music of the organ or harmonium is also allowed at Mass and Vespers solely to support the singing.” [my emphasis]
This last point is the first chink in a suit of armour that was to be subsequently demolished altogether within 30 years.
Nothing is said in Musicam Sacram (1967), but in England and Wales an important but little-known document is Music in the Mass (Bishops of England and Wales, 1970). Paragraph 37 states quite clearly: “The organ may be used to lead the singing at any time, even on Good Friday.” Interestingly, another document of the same Bishops’ Conference, Music in the Parish Mass (1981), is completely silent on this point. Perhaps its authors saw no need to vary the previous provision.
England and Wales’s lead was reluctantly followed in 1986 by the document De concentibus in ecclesiis (Instruction on Concerts in Churches, Congregation for Divine Worship, 1987), whose paragraph 7 states: “In accordance with tradition, the organ should remain silent during penitential seasons (Lent and Holy Week), during Advent and Liturgy for the dead. When, however, there is real pastoral need, the organ can be used to support the singing.”
This brings us to the 2002 General Instruction on the Roman Missal [GIRM], where we find in paragraph 313:
In Advent the use of the organ and other musical instruments should be marked by a moderation suited to the character of this time of year, without expressing in anticipation the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord.
In Lent the playing of the organ and musical instruments is allowed only in order to support the singing. Exceptions, however, are Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts.
This seems to indicate that the prohibition during Advent has now disappeared altogether, a recognition that Advent is no longer considered a penitential season as such (it has an Alleluia, though no Gloria) but a season of expectant hope, in accordance with modern liturgical thought.
But the real point is that those who wish to continue to ban the organ during the seasons of Advent and Lent are not only working in a different direction from the changing thrust of the Church’s pastoral wisdom, as evidenced in the documents quoted above, but have failed to recognize that we now have a different kind of liturgy from that of preconciliar days.
Before the Council, when the organ was normally the only instrument and a proportion of the music used was unaccompanied, ceasing to use the organ made sense and provided seasonal contrast. These days, in a world of instrumental groups as well as organ, and when singing is predominantly accompanied, it makes rather less sense to remove all accompaniment for the sake of a principle which is no longer required by legislation and which runs counter to the kind of participatory liturgy that we now enjoy. There are other ways of demonstrating the differing nature of the liturgical seasons.