When should the organ (not) be used?

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.

[2011 retranslation]

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.


  1. From the GIRM: “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.”

    Seems straightforward to me. Simple. The spirit of the penitential seasons is sparse, penitent, austere, non celebratory. Proceed accordingly. Organ only to support the singing – what’s so hard to understand, here? (oh, right – the various people in charge don’t have a clue)

  2. Paul, I don’t follow this. Doesn’t the 1987 instruction only apply for concerts, not liturgies? And who is wishing to completely ban the organ during Advent and Lent? I have never met these people. Moreover, the Roman Missal rubrics for Holy Thursday state that all instruments are to be silent after the Gloria until the Gloria again at the Vigil, so there is no organ bias. The more interesting question is why Catholic music publishers continue to publish accompanied Triduum music in defiance of that rubric. I am being hypocritical; generally I have silenced the main organ after the Gloria (well, for the liturgies anyway; I really don’t want to go into Easter not having practiced!), but have used “secondary” instruments to help with the Vigil psalms. Our Good Friday liturgy will be completely unaccompanied.

    1. @Doug O’Neill – comment #1:

      Yes, the 1987 instruction was primarily intended to deal with concerts (a knee-jerk reaction to heavy metal concerts in Sant’ Ignazio and other Rome churches, we are told), but it also took the opportunity to cover other liturgical ground as well, as I demonstrated.

      When it was first issued (published in l’Osservatore Romano which was the only source for a long time), the provision which drew the most attention was para 10c which stated that for concerts “Entrance to the church must be without payment and open to all.” I think that particular stipulation has been pretty much ignored.

      While those wishing to silence the organ during the whole of Advent and Lent are far fewer than they used to be, those who wish to silence the organ during the Triduum are far greater in number. My intention was to show that in fact this is no longer necessary (and presumably the music publishers agree). The Roman Missal Holy Thursday rubric #7 concerning the organ is a hangover from previous editions and thus disagrees with GIRM 313, cited above — one of many internal contradictions in the Roman Missal.

      1. @Paul Inwood – comment #2:
        Thanks for the reasoned response. I think that the Missal rubric and GIRM are actually not contradictory, because the Triduum is not part of Lent, even if we continue some Lenten practices. GIRM 313 does not mention the Triduum at all.

        One might count me among those who wish to silence the organ during the Triduum, in my own practice, but not necessarily for the whole Church. I think it is a great and meaningful custom. I do, however, realize that is not practical for some places, because – let’s face it – it’s pretty difficult for many parish musicians to pull off. I would favor some sort of language in the GIRM that gives that suggestion as a strong option in accord with Roman tradition, but does not legislate it.

  3. I wish some of our younger musicians (too young to have experienced it themselves before 1970) would open themselves to the dramatic power of using no instruments at all between the Gloria on Thursday and the Gloria on Saturday—even if the rubrics allow using them to support the singing.
    I’m not sure I’ll start endorsing CanticaNOVA’s Gary Penkala regularly, but his words on this subject spoke to me: “I would say, at least during this Gloria-Gloria period, to turn the organ off, turn the microphone off, have a good, well-rehearsed choir present, and finally let the people hear their own sung praise! The unifying benefit of corporate singing comes from relying on each other.”

    1. @Paul R. Schwankl – comment #3:

      I wish some of our younger musicians (too young to have experienced it themselves before 1970) would open themselves to the dramatic power of using no instruments at all between the Gloria on Thursday and the Gloria on Saturday

      I certainly agree. This is a well-taken point and also a worthy goal. However I also think it’s important to keep in mind the abilities of the choir or schola. Not all parishes have well-developed choral programs. This should not be a point of criticism, but rather an encouragement for growth in this area. I am quite aware that a good choral program requires many hours of practice, and this also might not be feasible for some parishes who rely on part-time organists.

      One would also hope that eventually more parishes would chant the Passions, but again this also relies on the presence of a capable choirmaster/music minister to guide and train the choir.

      I should mention to my EF fellow-travelers that many parishes did not have the ability to have chanted and polyphonic Passions before the Council. The issue here is not a liturgical-war flashpoint, but the perpetual question of investment in a sound choral program.

  4. At the Chrism Mass here in Baltimore, a musical highlight for me what when, during the singing of the Agnus Dei (XVIII), the organ dropped out after the first repetition and the assembly in the packed Cathedral sang the rest unaccompanied. While I recognize that not all assemblies could or would want to go a capella from Gloria to Gloria, but there is something about the aural effect of the unaccompanied human voice that is deeply moving.

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #5:
      I wanted to say something similar. I’ve never felt I participated as deeply in liturgical song as I have the times when the congregation sang without accompaniment, a cantor, or microphones. It’s a sound that is so rare in Catholic churches as to be almost non existent, but when it happens it is amazing.

      The first time I ever heard the congregation sing was at a Benediction service – everyone knew and sang the traditional hymns, and it was amazing because you felt like you were surrounded by the music and in the middle of it.

      1. @Jack Wayne – comment #11:
        I must agree. One of the outstanding memories I have of congregational singing was at a Hymn Society Conference with the Mennonite musician Mary Oyer – no instruments, in accord with their tradition. It’s a shame that kind of singing is so rare in Catholic Churches. We can’t claim to have invented monophonic liturgical singing, because of the Hebrew tradition, but we’re pretty close.

  5. Isn’t is amazing that this debate looms large each year … fostered often at the demands of the “liturgy committee” and pastor who seem to have no problems changing texts, rubrics, rites, shortening and cutting RCIA rites, and are madly looking for ways to further speed up the Easter Vigil.

    Recently a parish, which lacked a real choir, was talking about the problems they were having with this “requirement.” They will hold “Vigil” at 5:15 (the regular Mass time) and have decided to have just the 3rd reading, Epistle and Gospel … but absolutely no organ, piano or guitar from Gloria to Gloria.

    Please, I cherish and respect our liturgical traditions and teachings deeply … I am that “conservative guy” … but this seems to me to be clear double-speak on the part of so many. … something imposed on our volunteer musicians that we will not impose on ourselves … “and so Father will be intoning the Solemn Gospel Acclamation three times in accordance with the rubrics” …. not likely.

    And so we also ask, “What about viri selecti?” and wait to get shouted down.

  6. On the practical level, if you provide your assembly with the opportunity to sing a cappella throughout the year, they will be more adept at it when the Thursday-Vigil stretch arrives.
    Allowing the assembly to hear their own voice unencumbered is potent throughout the course of the year. In the same way that the mysteries, joys, and beauty of the Triduum imbue our liturgies year-round in so many other ways, why not include this one as well?

    1. @Alan Hommerding – comment #8:
      Good point, Alan. Some of that depends on the church building acoustics, so that the people continue to feel supported in the absence of instruments with them. But sometimes we music directors are like football coaches who decide to punt on 4th and short – we are simply afraid of failure!

  7. Let’s please remember that Eastern Catholics/Orthodox sing everything unaccompanied, all the time. Eastern Catholics usually with just with a cantor leading and the Orthodox, more often than not, with a choir.

    I was brought up in a church that used no organ (or bells) Holy Thursday Gloria-to-Holy Saturday Gloria and it made a deep impression on me. Thankfully my parish now also does the same.

  8. I have never experienced a “no organ/no instruments Gloria to Gloria” Triduum…and it would be a shock at any parish I’ve ever played for if suddenly “imposed”. To reach this goal, there would have to be more year round singing a capella by choir and by congregation otherwise, it would fall flat if imposed all at once, (at least it would in the parishes where I’ve played and/or am familiar with their music programs). But that kind of singing more often would be wonderful….do you think it a good guess that “no organ Gloria to Gloria” parishes are few and far between? Or am I just in a scofflaw diocese?

  9. Perhaps I should clarify that I am not against unaccompanied music for the assembly — far from it: I am a strong advocate of some unaccompanied music being part of the congregation’s musical “diet” throughout the year for all the reasons others have adduced above.

    But that is not the same as a mindless prohibition of any accompaniment at all from Thursday evening Gloria to Vigil Gloria, which takes no account of the normal musical diet of a community and, I maintain, is no longer mandated by the Church’s legislation. Such a prohibition makes no sense when a community’s entire repertoire is accompanied — for example, by an instrumental group.

    The 1958 Instruction is quite clear:

    The music of the organ or harmonium is also allowed at Mass and Vespers solely to support the singing.

    The 1970 E&W statement even more so:

    The organ may be used to lead the singing at any time, even on Good Friday.

    — however much some people may wish those documents didn’t say those things.

    While I accept Doug’s point that in a strict interpretation the Triduum is not considered to be part of Lent, the fact is that the majority of people, however erroneously, consider that Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends at the Easter Vigil. If the authors of GIRM and other documents had wanted to be absolutely clear, they would have specifically excluded the Triduum from the Lenten legislation, but they didn’t; and it also seems very clear that the general trend in the legislation is towards increased use of the organ and other instruments during the “penitential” seasons, not less use.

    We are still in a postconciliar transitional stage, and, while more unaccompanied music and chant is making a comeback in some quarters, in many other places — the majority — such music is the exception rather than the rule. I expect to see further changes in the legislation that will reflect the actual situation on the ground in many communities.

    In the meantime, there are other ways in which communities can make the character of the first 48+ hours of the Triduum stand out as special and different, and those include unaccompanied music, a repertoire which is more stark (and there has been some extraordinary accompanied music written for the Triduum over the past 40 years which, quite frankly, we cannot afford to jettison), instrumentation which is reduced or changed, as well as changes to the liturgical environment. All that is required is a little imagination.

    I am reminded of some intensely moving Good Friday evening “At the Foot of the Cross” services, which included (accompanied) excerpts from Bach’s St Matthew Passion, the Pergolesi Stabat Mater, Stainer’s Crucifixion and many other works. Once again, I don’t know of anyone who would willingly forego this kind of Triduum experience.

  10. I had the rare opportunity to attend a very ROTR Mass just now and I noticed they seemed to follow the no organ after the Gloria rule. They had an excellent choir that was able to lead the Spanish, English, and latin hymns without the organ so it seemed to work for them. The organ only played a few notes at the start to give them a pitch.

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