Preparing for Holy Week, Part 4: The Easter Vigil

Adam Bartlett

Mar 19, 2024

This is the fourth part in a 5-part series on the music of Holy Week. Click here to view Part 1 (Palm Sunday), Part 2 (Holy Thursday), and Part 3 (Good Friday).


The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night is “the greatest and most noble of all solemnities.” It leads us into the mystery of Christ our Light, through the story of salvation history, through the paschal sacraments, and into the glory of the resurrection. And its music, as an integral part of the ritual action, can help draw us all more deeply into this mystery and help our parishes participate in it more actively and fruitfully.

Here are some helpful tips, along with scores and audio recordings from Source & Summit, to help you prepare for a beautiful and solemn Easter Vigil at your parish:

Easter Vigil Preparation Guide

Just as the Celebration of the Passion of the Lord concluded the day before, the Easter Vigil begins in silence, outside of the church, around a blazing fire that signifies the light of Christ rising in glory to dispel the world’s darkness.

After the Blessing of the Fire and Preparation of the Candle, all process into the church together, lead by the ministers and the deacon, holding the paschal candle that has been lit from the fire. The deacon intones the Lumen Christi, with all replying, at the door, in the middle of the church where all light their candle from the paschal candle, and again at the altar. After the paschal candle is placed on its stand, all lights in the church are lit except for the candles on the altar.

The Exsultet

Then the Deacon asks for a blessing and goes to the ambo to chant The Exsultet, which may also be sung by a priest or by a lay cantor if necessary. If it is sung by a lay person, the parts particular to the ordained minister are omitted: “Therefore, dearest friends” through “The Lord be with you. / And with your spirit.” The Order of the Levites is an Old Testament term for the diaconate, and The Lord be with you and its response are a versicle that establish a right relationship between the ordained ministry and the baptized faithful, and so they should not be sung by a lay person.

The Exsultet is the most elaborate of all of the priestly chants, although its musical style is still essentially formulaic in design, making it within reach of non-trained singers. Its difficulty, really, is due to its length, along with its various embellishments that pull it away from its mostly predictable formulaic patterns.

This chant is a veritable marathon to sing from beginning to end. When sung well, it is hard to think of a more sublime and luminous moment in the entire liturgical year. When sung poorly, and without the necessary preparation, it can make for one of the most difficult to endure. Because of this, parish musicians should strongly consider a practice session or two with the deacon or priest, or whoever is set to sing the Exsultet.

As you practice and prepare, take note of the overall musical form. It begins with an introduction which uses a unique melodic formula that repeats several times over. Then it moves to the preface dialogue, just as it is sung in every Mass, and then it continues in a more elaborated form of the preface tone. The elaborations are found at the beginning of phrases throughout, and they are all somewhat unique to the words that they set. To maximize your rehearsal time, be sure to practice these elaborations well. Circle them in your missal and memorize each one. Note how they lead back into the preface tone, and also how the preface tone underlines the structure of the text, with the melodic conclusion falling to rest at the ends of sentences.

Very often, those who are not trained in reading musical notation see nothing but an unending series of notes in the Exsultet and often lose sight of the bigger picture. Others, realizing that they aren’t likely to sing the right notes anyway, get the first melodic formula in their mind and then improvise the entire chant upon it, entirely missing the shift to the preface tone.

Whatever the case, it is important to remember that we learn best through imitation. Here is a beautifully produced practice recording that can be listened to on any device while looking at and following the musical score to help you prepare for a beautiful and Exsultet in your parish this year:

Easter Vigil: The Exsultet

The Easter Alleluia

Toward the end of the Liturgy of the Word, which walks through the story of salvation history, and after the singing of the Gloria where bells are rung after two days of silence, a pinnacle moment in the Easter Vigil occurs: The Easter Alleluia.

The Alleluia of the Easter Vigil is ordinarily sung by the priest with the people replying, and with the cantor or choir singing the three verses from Psalm 118 (117) in between repetitions of the Alleluia refrain that is sung by all.

The melody is elaborate, but it is short, easily learned, and worth learning and singing well. It is a melody that is only sung once each year and can become for your parish a symbolic sound of the Resurrection. It ascends by step each time that it is sung by the priest at the beginning, signifying the rising of Christ and the intensification of our joy in the Resurrection. 

When singing it, bear two things in mind: First, the chant is essentially the elaboration of a single note from beginning to end. Focus on this modal center, and think of the other notes as ornamentation of this single pitch. Secondly, when you see repeated notes on the same pitch, give them a slight pulse each time without interrupting the flow of the sound. This is called “repercussion” and it keeps the melody moving forward, as opposed to stopping that rhythmic movement with a single note that is held for an indeterminate period of time.

Here is a recording of the Easter Alleluia, beautifully sung, to help you practice:

Easter Vigil: The Easter Alleluia

The Baptismal Liturgy

After the Gospel Reading and Homily, if there are people to be baptized, the Baptismal Liturgy begins. After the priest’s introduction and during the procession to the baptistry, the Litany of Saints is sung. This litany, according to the Roman Missal, is sung not by one, but by two cantors together, with all replying. 

After the litany, and at the conclusion of the blessing of the baptismal water, the acclamation Springs of water, bless the Lord is sung.

Click here to listen to The Litany of Saints and the chant for the Blessing of Baptismal Water in English chant settings as found in the Source & Summit Gradual:

Easter Vigil: The Baptismal Liturgy

After the Baptismal Liturgy, which concludes with the Profession of Faith and Sprinkling Rite, the Mass continues as usual, and ends with the Easter dismissal. 

Pro Tips for The Easter Vigil:

  • In comparison with the chants of Holy Thursday and Good Friday, the music of the Easter Vigil is not particularly demanding for choirs. The demands of this liturgy come from its length and the uniqueness of all of its parts. Music directors should follow the Roman Missal through the Mass, or take advantage of the abbreviated rubrics offered in Ordos created on the Source & Summit Digital Platform.

  • The Liturgy of the Word can be made more solemn and seamless with the chanting of the orations by the priest. When this is done after the singing of each Responsorial Psalm, the rather lengthy sequence of readings can be made more beautiful, varied, and prayerful and help engage parishioners more deeply.

  • Be sure not to start the Easter Alleluia too high! Accompanists should consider giving the priest starting pitches each time, staring in a key that is two full steps lower from where the Psalm verses will be sung. The score in the Source & Summit Gradual offers an optimal pitch that works well in most cases, but also can allow for the changing of keys to accommodate for the range of any voice. 

  • Note that there is no rubric in the Roman Missal that specifies that an acclamation be sung after each baptism.

Prepare for Holy Week Well

Sign up for a free 30-day trial on Source & Summit and gain instant access to music scores, recordings, readings and rubrics for Holy Week that you can use to plan, share, print, and practice.

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December 3, 2023


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Contact us to request a quote, place an order, schedule a demo, or to discuss the needs of your parish. You can also start a free trial or request a free missal sample to get started right away.

Ready to get started?

Contact us to request a quote, place an order, schedule a demo, or to discuss the needs of your parish. You can also start a free trial or request a free missal sample to get started right away.

Ready to get started?

Contact us to request a quote, place an order, schedule a demo, or to discuss the needs of your parish. You can also start a free trial or request a free missal sample to get started right away.