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.

6 Replies to “Tenebrae”

  1. Thank you so much for bringing up this topic and mentioning the sublime Victoria. I like the recording of Victoria's Tenebrae, on CDs entitled Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae, done by two early music groups, La Colombina and Schola Antiqua, and issued on three CD in one case by Glossa Music (glossamusic[dot]com). It includes Victoria's music for Palm Sunday, his music for the Passion on Palm Sunday,and the Tenebrae proper with Victoria's music sung, and the readings and their responses chanted. It looks like you get to the whole three services.

    Last Holy Week I heard part of Victoria's Holy Week music at the FSSP Church in Rome. Beautiful!

    However much I am a fan of the OF Office, I wish we had the Tenebrae. There is a problem, as I mentioned in another post. It should be held at night for the full power of the darkness and the anticipated victory of the light, and it would be a wonderful prep for the Holy Thurday's taking away of Our Lord, Good Friday's absence of Our Lord, and The Easter Vigil's return of Our Lord and its own ending of the darkness. (The Easter Vigil = The Christian Eleusian Mysteries)

    Yet Holy Thursday Mass and the Easter Vigil are already at night. And many pastors have to offer the Good Friday Commemoration also in the evening because of their parishioners' work schedules. I can also imagine that choirs already have plenty to do for The High Holy Days.

    How to overcome this? Perhaps move it to the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday of Holy Week? Anyone for a Confraternity of the Tenebrae?

    Thanks again

  2. These have also been recorded magnificently by The Tallis Scholars on Gimell. I have a group doing most of these in a concert setting in late March.

    Keith is right that Victoria was a priest, but I should note that just about every Renaissance composer was as well. Palestrina is the notable exception.

    Some day I will do a full Tenebrae service, which is quite long….

  3. Tomas Luis de Victoria was not just a priest but in my opinion as great a mystic as his contemporary St John of the Cross. His setting of the Improperia, alternating with the chant, achieves a sublime effect using the simplest of resources. If the Church were really serious about music his cause for canonization would have been advanced years ago. Why can't we have some musical saints? JS Bach as a Lutheran is sadly out of the running, but I'm sure the Holy Father wouldn't object to a St Anton Bruckner.

  4. I have been to two Tenebrae services in the DC area (Dominican House of Studies in DC, and St John the Beloved in McLean, VA).

    Both were beautiful and technically-excellent.

    However, neither was the Matins/Lauds office of the next day (Thursday, since they were each held on Wednesday night). Rather, it was a selection of Matins and Lauds psalms, chapters, lessons, etc. from Thursday, Friday, and Saturday's offices.

    I would rather that there either be a night Tenebrae for all three days (simply not possible given the post-1955 Holy Week changes), or to simply stick to the Holy Thursday Matins and Lauds from the 1961 B.R.

  5. Surely one needs to be more than just a great, even inspired, musician to be a saint. How about great painters and poets? They will receive their rewards in heaven. No need to trouble ourselves. St Cecilia stands in for all. If any could be considered, I think it would be William Byrd for his heroic stand at great risk to freedom and life.

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