“The sacred Paschal Triduum of the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord,” according to the Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the General Roman Calendar (18), “shines forth as the high point of the entire liturgical year.” It is not surprising, therefore, that the Triduum has also been the emotional heart of the year, attracting dramatic hyperbole in hymns, homilies, and heartfelt poetry.
Lent ends at sunset on Holy Thursday, and the Paschal (or Easter) Triduum begins then. It is one liturgical service spread over three days. Beginning with the Evening Mass on Thursday of the Lord’s Supper (Holy Thursday) and concluding with solemn evening prayer on Easter Sunday, it incorporates at least three liturgies of the Word, at least two liturgies of the Eucharist, a Communion service from the reserved Sacrament, at least one day of fasting and abstinence, a solemn foot washing, a communal veneration of the cross, an extended service of light, a service of sacramental initiation, and selected times of prayer from the liturgy of the hours.
There may be three days and multiple services, but the Easter Triduum is one great celebration of the paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. These days present a variety of challenges for pastoral musicians. In addition to the Easter Sunday Masses—also part of the Triduum—there are the three major celebrations that lead to Easter morning: the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening, the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil in the Holy Night on Saturday night.
These three liturgies constitute a single celebration of Christ’s paschal mystery, yet there is movement within each celebration and from one to the next. The Triduum may begin by proclaiming “glory in the Cross” in the entrance song on Holy Thursday evening and may conclude with the singing of Alleluias at Easter Evening Prayer, but along the way there are moments of proclamation, prayer, and ritual action that plunge us into a rich tapestry of human experience and divine mystery in the death and resurrection of Christ.
Here are some musical dimensions of the Triduum liturgies to which pastoral musicians should pay special attention:
Musical Shape of the Triduum.The rubrics for the Evening Mass on Holy Thursday in the Roman Missal direct that instruments be used only to support the singing from the Gloria on Holy Thursday until the Gloria of the Easter Vigil. This norm suggests that there should be no instrumental music apart from singing and little if any instrumental elaboration connected to the singing. Some communities continue to observe the former practice of using no instruments during this period. For specific music suggestions—apart from suggestions given here for the psalms for Holy Thursday and Good Friday and some other key ritual moments unique to these days—consult your parish's tradition for these most traditional days, the Lenten suggestions given in this guide, and the Easter Sunday suggestions.
Acclamations and Service Music. It would be very appropriate to use different settings of the Mass parts for the liturgies of Holy Thursday and the Easter Vigil to express the different emphases of these two Eucharistic celebrations. Additionally, there are many ritual actions during the Triduum that invite the participation of the assembly through sung acclamations: on Good Friday, the Showing of the Holy Cross; at the Easter Vigil, the opening proclamation of light, the solemn Alleluia, the blessing of baptismal water, and the baptisms.
Dialogues.The dialogues are among the most important sung parts of the liturgy (see Sing to the Lord, 115a). Musicians can help to provide gentle and loving coaching for priests and deacons who may be a little frightened of singing the preface dialogue (used both for the Eucharistic Prayer and the Easter Proclamation), the greetings, and the blessing. Make sure that the deacon (or priest) and choir are prepared to sing the dismissal and response at the end of the Easter Vigil with its double Alleluia.
Psalms.The liturgies of the Triduum make generous use of the psalms, especially during the Easter Vigil’s extended liturgy of the Word and, of course, at solemn Easter Evening Prayer. Make careful choices that require little if any instrumental support in order to maintain the musical shape of the Triduum and to allow the texts of the psalms to be proclaimed with as little encumbrance as possible.
Sequence.The Easter sequence Victimae Paschali is as much a part of the celebration of Easter Day (it is not part of the Vigil) as are other non-scriptural texts used in the liturgy (the collect texts, the renewal of baptismal promises). It is a required part of the celebration, and as a hymn text it should be sung immediately before the Alleluia. Any of the published musical settings may be used, using the text from the Lectionary, another translation, or even a paraphrase. It may be sung straight through by all together, or in a responsorial setting for assembly with choir or cantor, or by the choir or cantor alone (see Sing to the Lord, 166). Some communities combine the Easter sequence with the Gospel Acclamation and sing it during an extended Gospel procession, while the Book of the Gospels, accompanied by candles and incense, is carried through the congregation as a symbol of the risen Lord.
Liturgical Songs.There are both familiar and special ritual actions calling for liturgical songs during the Triduum. The Holy Thursday liturgy includes not only songs for the entrance, preparation of the gifts, and Communion but also for the washing of the feet and for the transfer of the Eucharist. On Good Friday, there are liturgical songs for the two great processions—veneration of the cross and Communion. At the Easter Vigil there should be songs for the sprinkling of the assembly with blessed water, the preparation of the gifts, and Communion. The Roman Missal provides official texts and, in some cases, music for all of these ritual actions, many of them of long-standing tradition and deeply expressive of the mysteries being celebrated, such as Ubi caritas for the preparation of the gifts and Pange lingua gloriosi for the Eucharistic procession on Holy Thursday. A number of composers have created contemporary musical settings of some of these texts.
The Whole Community. These liturgies bring together the entire parish community in ways that the Sunday liturgy does not. Even in parishes with a diversity of music groups, there should ideally be one group of musicians (combined, if possible, from all the parish’s musicians) to serve the singing assembly for these celebrations. In parishes with a variety of cultural groups, the voices, images, and languages of all should be part of this central celebration in the church year and in the life of the community.

(This introduction has been excerpted and adapted from Singing the Year of Grace: A Pastoral Music Resource [NPM Publications, 2009].)