Tudor Consort sings Victoria’s Tenebrae Responsories

Music for Holy Week

The Tudor Consort directed by Michael Stewart

Tenebrae Responsories by Tomás Luis de Victoria with plainchant interludes from Pange Lingua by Venantius Fortunatus; De Profundis by Pizzetti; Three Motets, Op 110 (Brahms); Crucifixus à 8 by Lotti

Cathedral of St Paul

Good Friday, 22 April, 9pm

When I starting writing reviews for The Evening Post in 1987, I was not particularly au fait with very much liturgical music and even less with its technical vocabulary, having not been brought up in a religious family. Coming to grips with the significance of parts of the liturgy like the Tenebrae responories and their use in the church was interesting….

Let me assume that fewer today, even the nominally Catholic, are very familiar with some of the more arcane areas of the liturgy.

Holy Week is the busiest period in the calendar of the Christian church, and the commemoration of the events surrounding Christ’s crucifixion supplied the church with the opportunity for an extensive and complex variety of rituals most of which involved, from the earliest times, the speaking, chanting or singing of texts from the Bible; at Easter, that was mainly from the Gospels. And the events in the story provide for the expression of emotions of every kind, of betrayal, persecution, grief, experience of death both by the victim and by others, and the mysteries of the resurrection. The ceremonies that evolved very early to symbolize and represent the story involved extinguishing candles in gathering darkness (though there was no enactment of that in this concert), accompanied by chant and, from the 16th century, polyphonic choral singing of some of the most richly and emotionally charged compositions in the western musical tradition.

The best, straightforward account of the Tenebrae is from the New Grove Dictionary of Music: I paraphrase: the combined offices of Matins and Lauds on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday of Holy Week. The service is marked by the extinction of 15 candles, one after each psalm. At the end of the canticle Benedictus Dominus all the candles are extinguished and what follows is said or sung in darkness – ‘in tenebris’. The musically significant parts of the ceremony are the first three of the nine ‘lessons’ of the Matins, taken from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and the responsories that follow each.

The Responsories are just that – responses to each of the readings of lessons at Matins (the equivalent after readings at Mass is the Gradual). It was in the late 16th century that polyphonic settings of the Tenebrae responses became common. Out of the full 27 responsories to the Tenebrae ceremonies, Victoria set 18 of them and just six of those were sung on Friday evening. Each response consists of two parts – the respond and the verse – and the distinction in this performance in terms of voices used and the more hortatory character of the settings, was dramatically rendered.

The choir, positioned between choir stalls and sanctuary, while the audience occupied the choir stalls and seats between, sang with remarkable musical, though less verbal clarity: consonants were often allowed to pass unattended. But the deeply contemplative and grieving mood was wonderfully sustained and the singers grasped every expressive opportunity. In ‘Unus ex discipulis’, dealing with the betrayal by Judas, the descending lines and the highly charged singing described the event and its impact far better than any explicit expression of condemnation or outrage could.

Interspersed between parts of the Responsories and other pieces, were plainchants from the 6th century ‘sequence hymn’ by Venantius Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers, Pange lingua gloriosi proelium certaminis. They are chanted during the Adoration of the Cross on Good Friday and so were actually more exactly appropriate to performance on the evening of Good Friday than the Tenebrae Responsories themselves.

This concert included from Pange lingua, the ‘Crux fidelis’, ‘De parentis protoplasti’, ‘Hoc opus nostrae’, ‘Quando venit ergo sacri’, ‘Sola digni tu fuisti’ and ‘Aequa patri filioque’. Long stretches of plainsong I sometimes find tedious, but these were quite brief and, in any case, sung so exquisitely, shared between male and female voices and then together, that they were highly satisfying intercepts.

In addition to the selections from the Tenebrae Responsories and punctuating plainsong from the Pange Lingua, was one of the most remarkable pieces of modern polyphony reflecting the Renaissance style: The De Profundis of Pizzetti. (Pizzetti, 1880 – 1968, 20 years or so younger than his more famous operatic contemporaries, wrote mainly orchestral and vocal music, though he did have some operatic success, for example with his setting of T S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral Assassinio nella cattedralae).

De Profundis, composed in 1937, is drawn from Psalm 130. It emerged as a religious expression of great integrity, bearing essential marks of 16th century liturgical music, but with harmonies and colours clearly post-Brahms, and recognizably of 20th century sensibility, and handling of voices. It was a superb performance; one of those that will drive me to explore more of Pizzetti’s music (though I did see Assassinio nella cattedrale in Rome a few years ago).

Then there was the group of three motets of Brahms, late works. The first and third could be compared with the Pizzetti motet, composed lineally in flowing counterpoint, while the second, ’Ach, arme Welt’, had a clear German chorale character, with vertical harmonies. The choir’s adroit stylistic shift was a further mark of its versatility. 

Another composer was called in to end the concert. Antonio Lotti, who lived from 1667 to 1740, about a hundred years after Victoria, continued to compose in the Renaissance style. Music had changed very considerably from the time of Victoria. As well as writing liturgical music (he was maestro di cappella at St Mark’s Venice), he wrote some 24 operas (though only eight survive) and he spent two years as opera composer for the Elector of Saxony, Friedrich Augustus I at Dresden.

The Crucifixus for eight voices from a Credo in F is a famous and popular piece; in turn it comes from his Missa Sancti Christophori, which was written while Lotti was at Dresden.

For this final piece, the choir was spread out across the full width of the sanctuary; it lived up to its promise, melodically interesting with women’s voices in long descending lines against varied accompaniment by male voices. Though the mass itself is written with instrumental accompaniment, in this section only a continuo line remains, and that was of course dropped from the performance, no doubt making the maintenance of pitch rather more difficult.

It brought a thoroughly enrapturing concert to an end, neatly affording a view of the high Renaissance from a beautiful, backward-looking work of the Baroque period. Once more, this superb, world-class choir which is far more than simply an ‘early music’ ensemble, delivered performances of warmth, precision, wide-ranging expressiveness, beauty and impressive ensemble.

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