~ Tenebrae: Approaching darkness… ~

tenebrae-candlestickPostertenebrae The boys quite liked the title, whilst the parents wondered anxiously what the next Lent concert sung by the Abbey Choir might be; after all the title “Tenebrae”, which means “approaching darkness” sounds a little forbidding!It was with some curiosity, therefore, that a modest but captive audience came to the Abbey Choir’s performance of “Tenebrae: A Sequence of Music and Readings for Passiontide” on Saturday, 9th April.   The concert consisted of three parts or Nocturns.  Each nocturn was made up of Psalms, readings, a responsary and a motet sung by the Choir.  The theme of approaching darkness became apparent during the concert.  At the end of each responsary two of the fifteen Tenebrae candles were extinguished and the lights of the church switched off until only one candle – the “Christ candle” – remained.  At the end of the performance the “Christ candle” was removed from the candle stand.  Amidst this complete darkness, a loud sound of banging representing the earthquake at Christ’s death echoed from the choir stalls.  It sent a chilling sound throughout the church until the reassuring presence of the “Christ candle” was restored to the candle stand.  It brought a dramatic end to an amazing evening.

The music sung by the Choir reflected the theme of Passiontide.  Spanning from the sixteenth century until the present day, the music looked at the story of Christ’s suffering and death upon the Cross.  The evening began with Alonso Lobo’s beautiful motet “Versa in luctum” sung from the West end of the Abbey.  For the second nocturn the choir processed to the sanctuary.  The responsaries, which reflected on each of the readings, were taken from the Tenebrae Responsaries written by Victoria, Gesualdo and Lassus.  Amongst some of the more contemporary music, the choir sang Kenneth Leighton’s “Drop, drop, slow tears” and Ildebrando Pizzetti’s haunting setting of Psalm 129 “De profundis”.  The performance concluded with Allegri’s famous setting of the penitential psalm “Miserere Mei”. 

The service of Tenebrae dates back to the seventh century.  It is no longer part of the major ceremonies of the Triduum.  It was wonderful to have it performed again, however, at the Abbey.  The depth of the repertoire sung during the evening showed how far the choir has developed in recent years.  It is undoubtedly fitting to hear the choir sing such beautiful Catholic music, consistent with its founding purpose to preserve the rich tradition of Catholic liturgical music.  I’m sure the choir’s first Director of Music, Dom Cyril Rylance, would have been smiling!