holy week

Bernat Vivancos – El davallament de la creu (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Premières | 2 Comments

Having spent two days with Italian music, to mark Good Friday i’m turning to Spain, & the music of Bernat Vivancos. Vivancos was born in Barcelona in 1973 & studied composition at the Paris Conservatoire & in Oslo; having returned to Spain, for the last five years he has been musical director of the Montserrat Boys Choir. In Holy Week last year, at a live concert broadcast from the Montserrat Basilica, Vivancos’ new work El davallament de la creu (The Descent from the Cross) was premièred, & it’s not only an interesting addition to the vast repertoire of Good Friday music, but one of the most visceral examples that i know of.

Vivancos creates the work from two kinds of material, utterly different. One of the organs (two are used) is like a force of nature, solely occupied with vast, violent fortissimo plunges from extremely high to deep rumbling clusters; these deep clusters are frequently repeated, like immense blows to the chest. Not so much against this but alongside it, the choir, mysteriously unaffected, move in the opposite direction, making a gradual ascent from an initial low register. Read more

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Carlo Gesualdo – Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series | Leave a comment

i noted yesterday Sciarrino’s interest in Carlo Gesualdo, & so today, as Holy Week moves into the Triduum, here is a complete recording of Gesualdo’s setting of the Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday. Tenebrae is a remarkable service that’s rarely used today; it was created by combining the morning offices of Matins & Lauds, & then celebrating them in the late evening of the day before, so Tenebrae for Maundy Thursday would conventionally have taken place on Wednesday evening. It was a service with considerable ceremonial drama, with an elaborate candlestick—known as a ‘tenebrae hearse’—at its epicentre; throughout the service these candles would be gradually extinguished until only one remained (back in 2009 i posted a complete service of Tenebrae from Westminster Cathedral, which you can find here). Gesualdo’s music sets the nine responsories from the Matins part of Tenebrae (Lauds is primarily made up of psalms & antiphons). They fall into three ‘nocturns’, each containing three responsories; the first nocturn focusses on Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, the second switches attention to Judas, & the third widens the scope to show how pretty much everyone played their part in Jesus’ betrayal.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Gesualdo’s compositional style should continue to sound radical & strange into the 21st century. As i mentioned briefly yesterday, his life certainly had its share of drama, & the considerable anguish he wrought upon himself—he never lived down the crimes passionnels for which he is equally famous—can be heard paralleled in the distressed pungency of the Tenebrae Responsories. Composed in 1611, just two years before his death, they are a total departure from the smooth fluidity that characterises the polyphony of Palestrina & Victoria; to my mind, he draws similarities with his almost exact contemporary El Greco, whose work was equally at odds with the prevailing tempora & mores. In particular, Gesualdo’s use of chromaticism, used to pull chords in the most bizarre, oblique directions, is genuinely groundbreaking, & the way he would alternate between episodes like this & more traditional, diatonic passages only makes his music sound even more extraordinary. In a work like the Tenebrae Responsories, of course, such techniques seem to modern ears highly appropriate, heightening the intensity of the unfolding Holy Week narrative, now moving swiftly towards its nadir. The second responsory, Tristis est anima mea, demonstrates this especially strongly, Jesus’ words of sorrow carried on the most uncomfortably shifting chords, seeking anything approximating a cadence. Gesualdo breaks the music’s reserve at the accusation that the apostles will all flee, only then to resume an even more tragically sombre tone at the final thought of becoming a human sacrifice. Each of the responsories has its own moments like these; together (& alongside Gesualdo’s Responsories for Good Friday & Holy Saturday) they remain one of the most horribly vivid pieces of Holy Week music ever composed.

This performance dates back a good many years (i’ve lost the exact date of the broadcast), but took place on Maundy Thursday at the Temple Church in London. It was given by the wonderful Hilliard Ensemble, & as one would expect from them, is a remarkably faithful & heartfelt rendition of Gesualdo’s music.

Carlo Gesualdo – Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday

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Jonathan Harvey – The Royal Banners Forward Go

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As Lent moves into Holy Week, a hymn regularly sung is “The Royal Banners Forward Go”, composed as far back as 569 by the then bishop of Poitiers, Venantius Fortunatus. The text commemorates the crucifixion, opening in strikingly vivid fashion:

The royal banners forward go,
The cross shines forth in mystic glow;
Where he in flesh, our flesh who made,
Our sentence bore, our ransom paid.

It’s not a text that seems to have appealed to many composers down the ages, a notable exception being Franz Liszt, whose Via Crucis (discussed briefly in 2009) opens with a fortissimo rendition of this hymn. Much more recently, in 2003 Jonathan Harvey composed a new setting using the English translation by J. M. Neale.

Despite lasting barely four minutes, Harvey creates an atmosphere both intense & mysterious, the men & women answering each other in stately rising fifths. Only gradually do they move out of reverential shadow, drawn out by the descriptive references to Christ on the cross; the forced tutti Harvey creates captures well the ambivalence of Holy Week, its ultimate tone of celebration violently militated against by the preceding downward spiral into suffering & death. Read more

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