Choral Music for Holy Week: Sunday of the Passion and the Three Days

by Jonathan Kohrs

It goes without saying that Holy Week is one of the busiest times of the church year for choirs and their directors. But along with the high demands of singing for multiple services within the span of six or seven days (let alone the “eighth day” of Easter!) come the great rewards of proclaiming the Gospel through a wide variety of music in the most dramatic liturgies of the church year.

What follows is a listing of some of my favorite choral music for the liturgies of Holy Week, focusing on some of the choral elements unique to those liturgies. In other words, you’ll have to look elsewhere to find recommendations for more typical anthems, psalms, gospel acclamations, and hymns settings. For many of my recommendations, I’m relying on my go-to general choral collections:

Sunday of the Passion

The most common task of the choir unique to the Sunday of the Passion is the singing of a processional anthem—a festive way to conclude the procession with palms—based on some version of the text “Hosanna to the Son of David.” The popularity of this function of the choir is evidenced by the abundance of such anthems. The following are some of my favorites:

    • “Sing Hosanna to the Son of David,” Bartholomew Gesius (CCB, FMB)
    • “Hosanna to the Son of David,” Orlando Gibbons (SSAATB or SSATTB) (
    • “Hosanna to the Son of David,” David Morgan (NCAB)
    • “Hosanna to the Son of David,” Ronald Nelson (SAB) (AFP 11-1258, out of print)
    • “Hosanna! Blessed Is He,” Knut Nystedt (SAB or 2-part) (ACB)
    • Hosanna to the Son of David,” Tomas Luis de Victoria (GIA G-4575)

Maundy Thursday

There are two elements unique to the Maundy Thursday liturgy in which the choir can participate. The first is the foot washing. The text most commonly associated with this action is some version of “Where Charity and Love” (or the original Latin, Ubi caritas et amor). Even if the foot washing is not practiced in your church, this text is still worth singing. I’m limiting myself to settings of the text in English since the Latin settings (including the most famous, by Maurice Durufle) tend to be more difficult.

The second element unique to Maundy Thursday is the stripping of the altar. Various psalms have been appointed for this action, perhaps the most common being Psalm 22. Almost any setting of this or any other appointed psalm would be appropriate. There are too many available for it to be worth winnowing, except to draw your attention to those in the resources mentioned above, not to mention the simple but effective practice of using a psalm tone—Gregorian, Anglican, hymnal, or other. But there is one setting of Psalm 22 that I think is particularly appropriate for this action, a responsorial setting with stunning text-painting:

    • My God, My God,” David Clark Isele, from Psalms for the Church Year (GIA G-2262).

Good Friday

If your church follows a Tenebrae service, you may be interested in some settings of either the Passion according to John or the Solemn Reproaches (two elements unique to the Good Friday liturgy). The following may be of some help:

Passion according to John. In these settings the choir takes the role of the turba (or crowd) and cantors takes the roles of the evangelist, Jesus, and other characters:

Solemn Reproaches


Vigil of Easter

Most of the music for the Vigil of Easter is readily handled by cantor or cantors, which is a relief to members of your choir who may need to be back at church early the next morning. The music that can be taken by the choir includes the responses to the readings of the Vigil—traditionally, psalms and canticles from the Old Testament. For these, please check the season-specific collections above or other lists of recommendations like the one found on The pieces on these lists tend to be taken from the general choral repertoire instead of pieces based on the actual appointed psalmodic texts, but there are a number of choral pieces that are:

I hope you will find something of use in these suggestions, whether it is for this fast-approaching Holy Week or for the many to come in your service to the risen Christ and his Church.

Posted on Mar 15, 2018 9:49:23 AM
Filed Under: Planning,

Jonathan Kohrs

Written by Jonathan Kohrs

Jonathan Kohrs is assistant professor of music at Concordia University Chicago, where he conducts Schola Cantorum—CUC’s chapel choir—and Resonanz—its contemporary ensemble—for which he regularly composes music that crosses the boundaries between “traditional” and “contemporary.” In 2015 he received an honorable mention in the Association for Lutheran Church Musicians’ Raabe Prize for Excellence in Sacred Composition for his congregational setting of the communion liturgy, scored for piano, synthesizer, vibraphone, bass, flute, clarinet and oboe. He recently received an MFA in music composition from Vermont College of Fine Arts through which his compositions received subsequent performances by internationally-known pianist Stephen Gosling and Pittsburgh’s Chatham Baroque trio. His compositions are published by Concordia Publishing House, Augsburg Fortress Publishers, and World Library Publications.