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The sombre rituals of Maundy Thursday, as the church prepares to mark the events of Good Friday which must precede the celebration of Easter, have inspired composers throughout the centuries. The two settings for the Office of Tenebrae recorded here may be widely divergent in style, but both capture a hypnotic sense of atmosphere.
Universally known as ‘Le Roi Soleil’, the French Sun King appointed many musicians, and Couperin was added to his long list in 1693, at the age of 25, as one of four Organistes du Roi. The most illustrious member of his talented family, Couperin was ennobled in 1696 and made Chevalier de l’Ordre de Latran in 1702. He was instructed to provide music that would glorify his king, and the Royal Chapel of the lavish Palace of Versailles saw some of the greatest spectacles of the 18th century in the daily celebration of High Mass. Sadly, like much of Couperin’s music (and his correspondence with other composers, including J S Bach), his large-scale sacred works that were said to have existed in manuscript at his death are no longer in existence.
In fact, only a very small amount of Couperin’s ecclesiastical music was published during his lifetime, but his devoted followers, of which there have been, and are, many, delight at what remains. The settings we have been left with are some of the most expressively beautiful pieces of church music of the Baroque. The surviving small-scale pieces are scored for one, two or three voices and continuo, sometimes with concertante instruments and chorus. In comparison to the signature grandiose ceremonies that serenaded the height of Louis XIV’s reign, this sacred music is comparatively subdued but spiritually profound and alive with vivid emotional intensity.
Of this sacred music, Couperin’s Trois Leçons de ténèbres are widely regarded as some of the great masterpieces of the French liturgical tradition. They are a mixture of Italian and French styles, and while the declamatory and melodic text settings align with the tragédie lyrique style of the time, the incipits are traditionally set in plainsong formula, and the Hebrew letters of the alphabet appear in the text as melismas. The three Leçons appeared in print between 1713 and 1717, unlike the remaining six of the full nine settings (of which Couperin made reference in his writings), which are now lost.
The text derives from the Book of Lamentations where Jeramiah mourns the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon in 586BC. The intensity of the tone of gloom and bleakness is punctuated at the end of each Leçon, with Jeremiah’s words to the people of the Holy City, ‘Jerusalem, turn to the Lord your God’. The Leçons are believed to have been composed for the Abbey of Longchamp to be sung in intimate performance conditions for Matins on Maundy Thursday (which would have been observed on a Wednesday evening to increase attendance). We can deduce that the word 'ténèbres' is in reference to the darkness that would have resulted from the gradual extinguishing of the fifteen candles until the completion of Matins. This slow dimming of the candle light stunningly accompanied by the soft expressive vocal lines recalling the depth of Jeramiah’s noble anguish would have created an atmosphere of incomparably deep emotion.
2018 saw the 350th anniversary of the birth of Couperin, and in the 80 years or more since the recording history of the Leçons de ténèbres began, they are now ranked among the most frequently recorded of all settings from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. This recording, performed by two sopranos, a chamber organ and viola da gamba, is played from a facsimile of the original edition, and the beautiful settings are intensely personal and exquisite in their evocation of an atmosphere of sublime devotion.
Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday
An appreciation for great music is often enhanced by an understanding of its context; but in the case of Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613) the perceived significance of his troubled disposition, and of that shocking crime (maybe you’ve heard?), may just have got out of hand. Two feature-length movies, at least six biographies, ten operas and countless articles—the temptation to further dramatize the story is understandable, but honestly, the plain old truth is lurid enough and is ultimately more instructive: Gesualdo wrote music in outrageous defiance of logic and convention, but he was not the only composer in southern Italy who favoured a musical shock tactic; he lived in partial estrangement from society after 1590 (the year of his crimes), but that didn’t stop him from courting the musical world with enthusiasm; and while he was certainly a premier-grade sado-masochist with any number of fascinating perversions, he was actually considered ‘conservative’ in his day, by some standards at least.
At the start of the 17th century, Italian music was leading the world away from the edifices of Renaissance polyphony. A new era of melody and accompaniment was dawning, in which the dramatic burden was placed on individual singers to convey emotion through the varied powers of the human voice, rather than through interactions between different musical lines. The pioneers were Monteverdi, Peri and Caccini. By contrast, Gesualdo continued to employ the old tools—five or six voices in counterpoint, modal harmony (stretched to the limit, admittedly), no accompaniment—to place his eccentric autograph on the style most closely associated with the house of Este in Ferrara, and which was forged by the Mannerists—Luca Marenzio, Luzzasco Luzzaschi and Giaches de Wert. Mannerism was the perfect ideology for a man of Gesualdo’s volatile disposition and vivid imagination: its architecture, literature, art and music were full of whimsical folly and dramatic hyperbole, and Gesualdo would have felt encouraged to pour out his rage, grief, guilt and ardour to the last drop. But whilst he was not the musical lone ranger the stories sometimes depict, Gesualdo most certainly pushed the permissive nature of Mannerism well beyond the posturing of his peers. Where others seasoned their music with the element of surprise, Gesualdo seems intent on distorting every musical line with huge intervallic leaps, shattering every pianissimo with a furious cascade of semi-quavers and spoiling every logical harmonic progression with some piece of chromatic invention. In fact, the surprise comes in the perfect cadences and the moments of stillness, and by offering us these occasional moments of musical reprieve Gesualdo is able to create a pathos no other composer of his era could match. We may notice the unhinged moments first, but ultimately it is the craft that lingers.
The Tenebrae Responsories, composed late in the composer’s life and setting the nine responsories appropriate for each of the three most solemn days of Holy Week (thus 27 responsories in all), are his masterpiece. The settings for Maundy Thursday are the most tortured, lingering repeatedly on the betrayal of Judas and, by association, the guilt of all mankind. (Whilst the twisting harmonies and jagged emotional threads remain in part through the next two days, they settle in to a profound and tangible darkness by the time we reach the Responsories for Holy Saturday—recorded by Tenebrae in 2012). Gesualdo uses his vivid madrigalian language, honed by a quarter-century of practice, to capture Christ’s Passion with almost unbearable directness. Witness the second responsory, where the shameful flight of the cowardly onlooker ('vos fugam') is contrasted with the sacrifice of Christ ('et ego vadam immolari pro vobis') in a musical expression of desolation as profound as any that Monteverdi could conjure in the coming decades; or the sixth responsory, where Gesualdo paints the image of Judas’s suicide at the words ‘se suspendit’, with the voices at the top of their range, suddenly and brutally cut off.
In their liturgical setting these responsories are to be sung each day in three groups of three, these groups known liturgically as ‘nocturns’, with each nocturn preceding the extinguishing of a candle on the altar, as the church draws closer and closer to darkness. The end of the Maundy Thursday Tenebrae service is one of the most solemn moments in the liturgical calendar. The final candle on the altar—by now the only source of light left in the church—is hidden beneath the altar table as it is stripped of its finery, to symbolize the apparent triumph of evil represented by the betrayal of Christ. Gesualdo rises to this portentious occasion in the final responsory of his Maundy Thursday cycle, 'Seniores populi': 'The elders gathered to apprehend Jesus by trickery, and kill him. They came out with swords and clubs as against a robber.' Listeners will notice the plaintive, almost sensuous quality with which Gesualdo sets the word ‘occiderent’ (‘they might kill’) as if revelling in the pain of the moment. Perhaps this is the moment to remind ourselves that Gesualdo spent his entire life in ostentatious atonement for the crimes of his youth, insisting on daily physical punishment, and praying for the welcome release of his own death.
Signum Classics © 2020
Also harking back to my days as a singer, my other favourite music to sing at Easter time (Bach Passions aside) were Couperin’s beautiful and mesmerising settings of some of the other texts from the Tenebrae Offices. I first came across this music in a wonderfully atmospheric film all about another French composer, Marin Marais: Tous les matins du monde. The soundtrack to the film features heavily the music written at the time for viola da gamba—one of the two accompanying instruments for the two sopranos in Couperin’s settings, and played on our recording by the wonderful Jonathan Rees. Jonathan was joined on the continuo line by Steven Devine on organ, and I am delighted to have had them both on board for this project, bringing a huge amount of skill, knowledge and joy to our interpretation of this work. Of course, as a countertenor, I sang the Leçons de ténèbres at a much lower pitch, but here on this recording I hope you will enjoy hearing these two sublime soprano voices work together—at the correct pitch—to shape every phrase perfectly and bring each Lesson to its serene conclusion with the familiar text used in settings of the Lamentations: 'Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum tuum'.
Nigel Short © 2020