Friday, January 14, 2011


It will soon be the time when music directors begin thinking about Holy Week liturgies and the music to accompany them. One of my favourites of that time of year is the Matins of Tenebrae. Said, or sung, in the early hours of maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Saturday the Matins revolve around 9 readings and responsories, after each of which candles lighting the church on a hearse are extinguished until only darkness remains. In the monastic communities the chapel would be exited in total darkness and in total silence, the altar stripped bare and the statues covered. My enduring memory of this service was when I was at Westminster Cathedral as a student and as a server sitting in choro next to Basil Card. Hume. Rather than sit on the Cathedra in his choir dress he would sit in the choir pews in his Benedictine habit. And how wonderful it was.

Of my favourite compositional schools, I have always been drawn to the dark colours of the Spanish composers, Victoria in particular. The height of his compositional genius to me was the Responsories for Tenebrae, expertly edited in the 1950's by Henry Washington.

The first thing of note about Victoria was that he was a priest. The very writing of this music suggests to me that he managed what so few others achieved in their writing, namely to expose the very faith in his soul in the notes on the score. Every single response adds to the drama of those 3 days, every single note is necessary and serves a purpose. Of the 18 responsories it is the 3rd of Good Friday's Tenebrae Factae Sunt which gives us the drama of the crucifixion.

Written for 4 voices it, like all of the other responsories, is in Dmin and contrasts the hypomixolydian mode of the reading. Some directors perform the piece SATB, but to me, telling the crucifixion it absolutely must, without a shadow of a doubt, be sung TTBarB. Without the lower voices building up during the first movement with the rumbling of the bass adding colour and depth the piece just does not work. Tenebrae means darkness and the words prefix the crucifixion: Darkness filled the earth at the ninth hour and Christ exclaimed with a loud voice "my God, My God, why hast thou foresaken me?", the latter being sung in high tessitura by the tenor "fortissimo". The next movement is almost a serinade as Christ commends his spirit to the Father. Another basso continuo adds the texture to the concluding breath of Christ.

Victoria shies away from overly expressive counterpoint favoured by composers such as Annerio (and his 16 part Crucifixus) and the Tenebrae is largely homophonic, but there is plenty of rhytmic variety throughout the Responsories and neither is he afraid to use occasional dissonances to create tension. It is a rich, brooding piece that works well against the Augustinian lessons of the second nocturn (the Responsories of the first nocturn are much simpler in composition to accompany the Lamentations of Jermeiah which had already begun to be widely set to polyphony).

The end of the service, after such richness of chant and Response is the Strepitus, or great noise made by the slamming shut of a book or stomping of feet to mark the end of the service and to note the power of the earthquake that occurred as Christ died on the cross. For me, it is simply unsurpassable.

A reader writes to say that the full tenebrae can be heard at the Oratory, Corpus Christi Maiden Lane, and the Conventual Church of the Order of Malta at the Hospital of SS John and Elisabeth.