Thursday, March 20, 2008


Tenebrae is the name used for the particular way of reciting the offices of Matins and Lauds during the Easter Triduum. The name comes from the Latin word for darkness because these offices traditionally were anticipated and sung the evening before, ending with all the lights extinguished.

The two offices are sung straight through, one after the other. The psalms are interwoven with responsories, meditations on the great themes of Holy Week. These responsories have been set to wonderful polyphonic settings, most notably by Victoria and Gesualdo, but the original chants are themselves very beautiful. In addition there are readings from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, sung to a haunting tone which may even date back to chants from the ancient Jewish temple, and extracts from the writings of St Augustine and St Paul.

After each of the fourteen psalms one candle is extinguished of fifteen that stand on a special stand called a hearse. During the Benedictus the six altar candles are also put out leaving just the one candle alight. After the Christus factus est is sung that candle is then removed from the hearse and hidden behind the altar. The choir bang their books, representing the chaos in on the earth deprived of the light of the world. The final candle reappears and Tenebrae ends.

It is exactly twenty years since I sang my first Tenebrae as part of the famous "Glover Holy Week" in Durham. It is wonderful to have the opportunity to be able to sing it again. I am pleased to see from the NLM blog that there is a growing revival of interest in Tenebrae. We do not seem to have set Tyneside on fire for it quite yet but at least we have made a start.


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