At Christmas, Five Books for Catholics recommended some classical music for the season. Moreover, it did not recommend a hodgepodge of works from different periods. It stuck instead to twentieth-century classical composers. As a follow-up, here is a selection of five works of classical music for Lent by twentieth-century composers.

  1. Quatre Motets pour un temps de pénitence
    by François Poulenc
  2. Miserere
    by Henryk Górecki
  3. Triodion
    by Arvo Pärt
  4. Miserere and Videns Dominus
    by James MacMillan
  5. Symphony of Psalms
    by Igor Stravinsky
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Recommending some twentieth-century classical music for Lent might seem easier said than done. Nowadays, we do not associate Lent with music as we do Christmas. This is not how things have always stood.

In an interview with the Catholic Herald, the conductor Harry Christophers, renowned for his performances of sacred music, noted that the Lenten and Easter repertoire used to outstrip that of Christmas music.

“Frankly, I think some of the best music we have is written for Lent and Passiontide – from Renaissance composers particularly. I suppose in those days the accent on it was much, much more important than Christmas.”

Fortunately, composers born or active in the twentieth century have produced a substantial body of sacred music for that fits right into Lent. But why focus just on these composers rather than the even richer Renaissance and Baroque repertoire?

There are two motives. First, focussing on works written since 1900 sets an additional criterion for selecting the entries. Otherwise, the list ends up being a loosely connected assortment of Lenten pieces. That still does not explain why it is worth focussing on twentieth-century composers rather than Renaissance or Baroque ones. That is where the second, pedagogical motive comes in.

Those who dislike modern classical music might wonder whether listening to some is being recommended as a valuable penitential practice for Lent. Granted, there is plenty of awful modern music that would serve that purpose well. However, anyone wanting tips for putting together their penitential playlist, will need to do their own research. The works recommended here are by outstanding composers. They are seasonal. They are also accessible. They may be a good entry point for those who are unfamiliar with modern classical music. Listening to them can be pedagogical. It is a way of dipping your toes into the waters without getting them scalded or frostbitten.


The Quatre Motets pour le temps de Noël (1952) by François Poulenc (1899-1963) figured in the survey of twentieth-century classical music for Christmas. It was a companion piece for his earlier Quatre motets pour le temps de penitence (1938-39), these too for unaccompanied choir. As the latter work’s title suggests, it is for Lent and Holy Week.

 The Quatre motets pour le temps de penitence are one of the first works of sacred music that Poulenc wrote after a turning point in his career. The first was Litanies à la Vierge noire (1936), written shortly after he had taken up his Catholic faith again. 

In 1936, Poulenc was moved by the death by car accident of a young composer, Pierre-Octave Ferroud. He retreated to Rocamadour, a site of Marian pilgrimage that his father held dear. During his visit to the sanctuary of the Black Virgin, the simple faith of the pilgrims helped him recover his own. He had left it aside amid the Années folles.

Poulenc’s sojourn at Rocamadour inspired his Litanies à la Vierge noire. This work is a turning point in his output. Thereafter, the composer of Les biches began to produce a substantial body of sacred music or, in the case of his acclaimed operatic setting of Georges Bernanos’ Dialogues of the Carmelites, works about the faith. The themes of his non-sacred music also became more substantial.

The idea for the Quatre motets pour le temps de penitence came to him when listening to two cantatas by Darius Milhaud. However, this was not the only inspiration for the work. Andrea Mantegna was another.Poulenc stated that he wanted to make the motets just “as realistic and tragic” as Mantegna's paintings. Tomás Luis de Victoria was another inspiration. Poulenc admired the Renaissance composer of sacred polyphony greatly and claimed that he thought unceasingly of him while working on the motets.

It is not immediately apparent why Poulenc would have thought of Victoria. Poulenc's motets favour homophony over polyphony, Victoria's hallmark. There are, nonetheless, several strong connections between these motets and Victoria. Just as Victoria is best known for his Tenebrae responsories, three of Poulenc’s Quatre motets pour le temps de penitence are Holy Week responsories (Vinea mea electa, Tenebrae factae sunt, Tristis est anima mea). Victoria incorporated dissonance more freely into his works than some of his contemporaries. Similarly, Poulenc springs surprising dissonances on the listener of his motets. Victoria’s direct style is also mirrored in the austerity of the motets.

One excellent recording is that of Polyphony, directed by Stephen Layton. It also includes Poulenc’s Quatre Motets pour le temps de Noël, Gloria, and Exultate Deo.


Chopin is Poland’s best-known composer, maybe even its greatest. However, the country produced a richer crop of composers during the twentieth-century: Szymanowski, Bacewicz, Panufnik, Lutosławski, and Penderecki. One such composer to have written a work that fits right into Lent is Henryk Górecki (1933-2010).

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