Tudor Consort revives ancient Tenebrae rituals marking the stories of Holy Week

Tudor Consort directed by Michael Stewart

Tenebrae – music for Holy Week
Plainchant, and polyphony by Victoria, Edmund Rubbra, James MacMillan and Gesualdo

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul

Friday 19 April, 7:30 pm

The number of people familiar with the word Tenebrae is probably getting fewer by the year as religious belief declines and the deep-rooted traditions, including the use of Latin, are ‘modernised’. It’s not just a Roman Catholic Easter observance but it is also in the Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran, Western Orthodox and other churches. And since the Roman church ditched the use of Latin in normal services, the spirit of the past is offered in concert settings where the rituals are chanted and sung in Latin.

Tenebrae is a special office particular to Holy Week which used to be observed on the three days preceding Easter Sunday: that is, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. It has now been reduced to just once or twice, and has generally retreated from performance in the small hours of the morning.

The introduction in the programme book explained that there are two parts of the office of Tenebrae: Matins and Lauds. There are three Matins on each of the three days and each consists of three ‘Nocturns’ which begin with an ‘Antiphon’ followed by Psalms, both in plainchant. The following Responsory settings are in polyphony, drawn from words respectively, in the Book of Lamentations, Saint Augustine’s commentaries and the third from the New Testament Epistles.

They are followed by settings of texts that had come traditionally to form part of the office of Tenebrae before the 1955 reforms of Pope Pius XII. Michel Stewart confined the settings of parts of the service to four composers: justified as being considered by some music scholars as among the greatest composers of liturgical music: Tomás Luis de Victoria, Edmund Rubbra, James MacMillan, and Gesualdo.

Matins, Nocturns, Antiphons, Responsories …
The first ‘Nocturn’, after the plainsong Psalm 2, consisted of five settings by Victoria and Rubbra formed the ‘Readings from the Lamentations, answered by a responsory’, which can be chosen from the 27 ‘responsories’ (three ‘nocturns’ on each of the three days), that have become traditional and have been set by various composers., according to the agendas of particular priests. Victoria’s ‘Incipit lamentatio Jeremiae’ was a beautiful, slow example of Renaissance polyphony, that was splendidly enriched in the Cathedral’s big acoustic; it presents difficulties for more recent music, but seems perfectly adapted to this.

The juxtaposition of Victoria and Rubbra seemed to reinforce the impression that their sources of inspiration were very close, only separated, not by any radical compositional transformation such as atonality or serialism, but by a naturally richer sensibility and harmonic freedom. Rubbra’s name is not very familiar today. In the first decades after WW2 his name was better known and I owned (and still might have somewhere) recordings of a couple of Rubbra’s symphonies, as I’d encountered his music on the ‘Concert’ programme of the 1950s (2YC) which was a major part of my musical education. Such programming was far from the narrow and misguidedly ‘popular’ classical music that is broadcast today.

Rubbra’s settings of the ‘Amicus meus’ and ‘Judas Mercator’ might have sounded more angular than Victoria but they were tonal and comparably sombre, though women’s voices became more optimistic towards the end.  Rubbra’s third setting, ‘Unus ex discipulis’ – one of the disciples, deal with the story of Judas…

The second ‘Nocturn’ was based on Psalm 53, and it was followed by both Victoria’s and, instead of Rubbra, James MacMillan’s settings of appropriate Responsories.  It was striking that the 60 or so years from Rubbra to MacMillan sounded far greater than the 350 years between Victoria and Rubbra as a result of the radicalisation of musical language. And his first utterance, ‘Tenebrae factae sunt’ in which Christ calls out ‘God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ was delivered in dense, almost terrifying dissonances that expressed the emotion perhaps more powerfully than any earlier style of composition might have allowed. Not that I under-estimate the power of the musical language of the height of the Renaissance or the most gifted of Romantic composers.

It was somehow most fitting for this tragic, exclamatory phase to be accompanied by the extinguishing one by one, of the 15 candles on the candelabra (or ‘hearse’) at the front of the choir (which, incidentally, made it impossible to read the programme and identify what was being sung). Here was a point at which it was probably a shame for those unfamiliar with the narrative details, to be in the dark… For those unfamiliar; for the non-adherent, or non-believer, its meaning and enjoyment would derive only from the singing.

The third Nocturn began, again with an Antiphon and a Psalm – No 93, rather vengeful in spirit. The Responsories were again from MacMillan (‘Tradiderunt me’ and ‘Jesus tradidit impius’, respectively from the books of Job and Lamentations) and one from Victoria (‘Caligaverunt oculi mei’), about Christ’s betrayal and finally the crucifixion, a piece that expresses the deepest grief.

After the last of the Matins responsories comes the Lauds which were just represented by the ‘Miserere Mei’, Psalm 51, in a setting by Gesualdo, in which verses are alternately chanted and spoken.

By then all candles had been extinguished and the church was in darkness: the final step in the Tenebrae is the Strepitus, or ‘great noise’ which took the form of a fireworks-type blast accompanied by smoke, symbolising the earthquake that followed Christ’s death.

Even in its inevitably abbreviated form, performances of one of the major rituals of the church, dominated by a great deal of wonderful plainchant and polyphony continues to attract good audiences of believers and others. The performance by the Tudor Consort under Michael Stewart was impressively accomplished and deeply moving.

There are times when the use of Latin rather than a vernacular language is a huge advantage. Here we had an admirable programme pamphlet that printed both the Latin and an English translation. Improbabilities of religious tales seem to be far more acceptable sung in Latin (or any other language) than in English where the meaning of words and sentences is unambiguous, and something of the mystery lacking. Even more important is the fact that what we hear when the original language is used, are the very sounds that the composer was setting: his resonse to the sounds, and rhythms of the original language; it’s an important aspect too in arguments about use of the original language in opera and in song recitals.


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