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In monte Oliveti

Tenebrae Responsories for Maunday Thursday, Nocturn 1, No 1
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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.

from notes by Gabriel Crouch © 2020


Couperin: Leçons de ténèbres; Gesualdo: Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday
Studio Master: SIGCD622Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


Track 4 on SIGCD622 [4'44] Download only

Track-specific metadata for SIGCD622 track 4

Recording date
3 July 2019
Recording venue
All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Nicholas Parker
Recording engineer
Mike Hatch & Tom Mungall
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