Office of Tenebrae (Westminster Cathedral)

This afternoon’s broadcast of what is usually Choral Evensong, was fittingly transformed for Holy Week into the service of Tenebrae, from Westminster Cathedral. Tenebrae is something of a curiosity, the legacy of a rather odd Holy Week practice of transferring the usual morning offices of Matins and Lauds to the evening before; the practice only continues today, if at all, on Wednesday, thus preserving the unique liturgies of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Having experienced a service of Tenebrae myself (it was included in Tewkesbury’s Musica Deo Sacra festival a couple of years back), i can testify to its beauty, and also to its symbolic power in this most black week of the year—especially the ceremonial snuffing out of candles. It’s an extremely long service; indeed, a quick glance in my copy of the Liber Usualis reveals that the combined offices contain no fewer than 16 antiphons, 13 psalms, nine lessons, nine responsories and two canticles. Clearly, this is far too long for an hour-long broadcast (typically, it would take around three hours), so today’s service was a kind of “Diet Tenebrae”, drastically slimmed down, using a selection from the complete liturgy.

Throughout, the psalms are sung in English to Roman chant (accompanied plainsong), the lessons in Latin to plainsong, and the responsories are for the most part the well-known settings by Victoria. The first Nocturn, though, concludes with Orlando Lassus‘ toweringly melancholic In monte Oliveti, showing off the superlative skills this choir possesses—in my view, they are simply the finest choir in the land. Victoria’s responsories plumb astonishingly profound depths; the soaring treble line in Unus ex discipulis is eye-watering, and throughout them all, the music has a vigour that one might not expect from such distraught music; in Victoria’s hands, these texts become wildly declaimed laments, laden with distress. The meditations throughout contribute a great deal to the overall direction of the service, and are well worth pondering. Giovanni Anerio—something of an El Greco-type musical figure—is included, although only the first part of his rapturously lovely Christus factus est is sung; and following the collect, unlisted, is Pablo Casals‘ moving setting of the great text O vos omnes, tragic, majestically funereal. All the more shocking, then, when the service concludes in the traditional way, with the Strepitus, a thunderous stomping of the congregation, symbolic of the earthquake following Christ’s death—appropriately horrific.

The choir, as ever, is superb —it wouldn’t surprise me if this was the finest choral broadcast of the year. Here’s a summary of the music—the links are for PDF copies of the scores (the PDFs don’t always seem to appear happily in browsers; i recommend saving—right click the links—and viewing in Adobe Reader):

• Psalms 70, 72 vv1-8, 77 vv1-8 (Plainsong)
• Responsories: In monte Oliveti (Lassus), Amicus meus, Iudas mercator, Unus ex discipulis, Eram quasi agnus innocens, Una hora non potuistis, Seniores populi (Victoria)
• Versicle: Christus factus est (Anerio)
• Responsory: O vos omnes (Casals)

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