Hyperion Records

Trois Leçons de Ténèbres
published between 1713 and 1717
author of text
Lamentations 1: 1-5, 6-9, 10-14

'Couperin: Leçons de Ténèbres' (CDH55455)
Couperin: Leçons de Ténèbres
Buy by post £5.50 CDH55455  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
'The James Bowman Collection' (KING3)
The James Bowman Collection
Buy by post £13.99 (ARCHIVE SERVICE) KING3  Super-budget price sampler — Archive Service  
No 1. Conclusion of Première Leçon: Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum
Track 17 on KING3 [3'06] Super-budget price sampler — Archive Service
No 1: Première Leçon  Incipit lamentatio Jeremiae prophetae
No 2: Deuxième Leçon  Vau. Et egressus est a filia Sion
No 3: Troisième Leçon  Jod. Manum suam misit hostis

Trois Leçons de Ténèbres
The Trois Leçons de Ténèbres were amongst the small amount of Couperin’s ecclesiastical music that was published during his lifetime, and appeared in print between 1713 and 1717. The name ‘Tenebrae’ probably refers to the darkness that gradually spread during the service. Fifteen candles, fitted on a triangular frame, were extinguished one by one until Matins ended in darkness. The text, from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, was traditionally sung at Matins on Maundy Thursday, with other sections of the Lamentations performed on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, making a total of nine Leçons. It was normal to advance the office of Matins on these days to the previous afternoon, which explains the heading on the three published Leçons of ‘pour le Mercredy’. Puzzling, however, is the lack of the other six Leçons, for Couperin makes reference to their imminent appearance in print, and states that those for the Friday had been written some years previously: the second harpsichord book, published in 1717, also makes reference to the full nine settings.

Couperin’s Leçons are intensely personal, depicting Jeremiah’s bitter anguish in settings that are quite unique. The sections of declamatory ‘récitatif’ and arioso are descendents of the ‘tragédie lyrique’, but Couperin also adheres to tradition in setting the ‘incipits’ in plainsong formula, and in setting the Hebrew letters of the alphabet that punctuate the text as melismas. The contrast of these flowing sections with the main text, amongst which the melismas sound almost nonchalant, is a deliberate act on Couperin’s part: the letters act as a poignant foil to the overt expressiveness of Jeremiah’s lament. Each Leçon ends with Jeremiah’s words to the people of the Holy City, ‘Jerusalem, turn to the Lord your God’. The music has, within its own self-imposed limits, an intensity and power rarely found in baroque church music.

The first two Leçons are for solo voice: the third is a duet. The music was originally scored for two soprano voices but, following Couperin’s suggestion that ‘all other types of voices may sing them’ (and instructing the accompanying players to transpose), the editions used in this recording transpose the music down a fifth.

from notes by Robert King © 1991

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