Tenebrae responsories

Program: #23-18   Air Date: May 01, 2023

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Owain Park of the Gesualdo Six once again joins us to talk about the profound Holy Week music by the ensemble's namesake, Don Carlo Gesualdo.

Note: All of the music on this program is from the recording:

Tenebrae Responsories with The Gesualdo Six directed by our guest, Owain Park). Hyperion CD CDA68348.

The Gesualdo Six is a vocal consort comprised of some of the UK’s finest young consort singers, directed by Owain Park. Formed in March 2014 for a performance of Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge, the group went on to give over one hundred performances around the United Kingdom and abroad in its first four years. During this time, The Gesualdo Six further strengthened a passion for ensemble singing that for many of them stemmed from formative years as choristers in churches and cathedrals around the country.

The Gesualdo Six regularly performs at festivals around Europe, with debuts in the USA and Australia planned for upcoming seasons. The ensemble often incorporates educational work into its activities, holding workshops for choirs and composers and giving concerts alongside local performers.

Whilst initially focusing on early music, concert programmes began to reflect a desire to include more modern repertoire and now works from the Renaissance are interwoven with contemporary pieces by composers including György Ligeti and Joanna Marsh. The Gesualdo Six has curated two Composition Competitions, with the 2019 edition attracting entries from over three hundred composers around the world.

BETWEEN 1560 and 1569, Thomas Tallis set the first five verses from the Book of Lamentations, a reflection ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah which laments the destruction of Jerusalem. The texts correspond to the first Lesson of Maundy Thursday Matins, and they became popular among Continental composers during the early 1400s. It was not until the middle of the following century that multiple settings, by composers including Robert White, John Mundy, William Byrd and Osbert Parsley, appeared in England. Perhaps this was due to the period’s shifting religious requirements—composers were obliged to write in the musical style of the moment as the crown was thrust between Protestant and Catholic monarchs—which encouraged them to find a more ‘international’ manner of expression, unshackled from the demands of their royal patrons. Tallis, perhaps more so than his compatriots, has the ability to set the scene and deliver a story. Special attention is given to the opening statement of each of the work’s two parts, evoking sorrow through an expressive scalic motif that falls in the first part and rises in the second. Each biblical verse in the original Hebrew text of the Lamentations opens with a letter of the alphabet. Composers setting the text may have encountered these as ornate illuminations in the manuscript—strange symbols which had some obscure, mystical meaning. Tallis follows suit, preceding the Latin verses with settings of a Hebrew letter; taken together, they form a series of musical tableaux that have a special, more melodic compositional style. These are predominantly kept separate, acting as moments of relief  and solitude, with one exception: the first letter, ‘Aleph’, leads into the Latin verse as though the composer is urgent to begin the story. At times the Latin verses feel like string-writing—we enjoyed imagining the bowing and passing this around the ensemble—with the words presented in an almost conversational fashion.

The texts appear consecutively in both scripture and liturgy, but the settings are quite different in character and length. The second part begins in a distinct, darker mode, with a more anguished feel. As the passages build, there is much less room to breathe in the verses, which continuously gather steam as if there were some resentment bubbling underneath. Despite their obvious liturgical use during Holy Week, it is possible that these settings were intended for more intimate, private use; in this sense, one might draw parallels with the later music of William Byrd (and indeed his own set of Lamentations which sadly are missing an entire voice part for much of the work). Much like in the closing section of Byrd’s Ne irascaris, Domine, throughout Tallis’s Lamentations the composer lingers on moments of desolation and despair, reinforcing passages such as the weeping
of Jerusalem (‘Plorans ploravit’) by restating the musical material. The Book of Lamentations, which alludes to the Jewish captivity in Babylon, may have struck a spiritual chord with English Catholics, who doubtless identified with the cry to ‘turn to the Lord your God’. This is illustrated most potently during the closing moments of each part, with these words emphasized in repetitions of an arch-like musical figure whose grace belies their deeper, more personal meaning. 

In Watch with me, Judith Bingham sets words from Matthew’s account of the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane and from Wilfred Owen’s poem Exposure. In combination, these texts evoke a powerful description of suffering, the loneliness contained in the ancient story here conflated with a more contemporary account of a terrified soldier driven to madness in the aching cold. The biblical text is often set in the lowest voices alone as if delivered formally from the pulpit, whereas the poetry is treated more melodically, with chromatic scalic patterns giving the work a claustrophobic feel as the lines struggle to break free. The piece was commissioned by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey for a performance on 30 June 2016,the eve of the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. Towards the end of his life, and some twenty-one years after partial estrangement from society due to his crimes—murdering two people and using his title as Prince of Venosa to shield himself from retribution—Carlo Gesualdo published three sets of Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Week. The texts trace the events of the Passion, and were presumably performed in almost total darkness save for a handful of candles which were gradually extinguished. Gesualdo adheres to the rigidly austere formality of the Nocturns, sung liturgically in three groups of three Responsories, and he twists harmonies and melodic lines to create a profound musical expression of desolation. When working within the confines of a liturgical service, there is a formal structure in which some of the text (and therefore the music) is repeated. This poses a question as to how the performers should treat the material in the repeat (or ‘Presa’). The words have already been heard, so does the story progress? In some cases it makes sense to build further—for example, in the seventh Respon sory there is more urgency the second time round, the crowd now uttering wicked speeches against Jesus. At other times, it makes more sense to increase the emotional intensity by becoming more introverted and reflective, such as at the end of the sixth Responsory (‘Melius illi erat’).

Painting with long, broad brush strokes, Gesualdo sets the opening scene of the work with what might seem to be a fairly restrained harmonic palette. Later in the first Responsory, however, listen to how he uses the repetition of chords at ‘Pater’ and ‘fiat’ to link different harmonic territories, making the connection seem disarmingly obvious. Gesualdo finds ways to juxtapose tonalities that seem worlds apart, using sleight of hand to change just one or two notes at a time, thus propelling the chords into completely different dimensions.

The opening of the second Responsory presents an unusual succession of entries. Each new entrant becomes quickly entangled in a web of suspensions, building to a thick texture with punctuating dissonances. The composer then unfurls one of his most engaging musical scenes: sense how the eyes widen through the raising of teasing thirds at ‘Sustinete hic’ (‘Stay here’). A cry to ‘take flight’, depicted by a cascade of fast notes, is followed by one of the most harmonically gut-wrenching moments: the juxtaposition of opposing chords at ‘et ego vadam’. The magic of this music is that we as listeners are always kept on our toes, waiting for the composer to launch us in another direction. Passages that might otherwise have been delivered in a restrained manner to match the formality of the occasion are stripped of their nuance and taken to extremes. Note a contrast of this kind in the eighth Responsory (‘Una hora non potuistis’), where the sleeping disciples are suddenly awakened by an explosion of energy (‘Surgite’), before the music falls away to a calming end (‘et orate’).

The layering of these effects is what contributes to the heightened tension and sense of drama. Gesualdo shuffles his materials as if arranging them in a gallery, and calls upon the lower voices to highlight shadows and darkness in the text. In the third Responsory this rich tessitura illuminates the sufferings that Christ has borne (‘languores’), while in the eighth it portrays his slumbering followers (‘Quid dormitis?’). As the end of the service approaches, the music becomes no less turbulent. In the eighth Responsory, despite its brevity, the composer whips up a storm in a flurry of consonants as Jesus accuses his disciples of having been led into temptation (‘sed festinat tradere me’). In a final act of defiance—an attempt to thwart the triumph of evil represented by the betrayal—Gesualdo throws everything in his toolkit onto the page to incite the crowd, as if they had multiplied ten-fold in this masterclass of short-form imitation (‘cum gladiis’). The solemnity of the Maundy Thursday service is briefly lost in this moment of chaos: perhaps a nod towards the noise made to symbolize the ‘earthquake’ at the Resurrection before the congregation departs in silence.

Gesualdo is often portrayed as a radical in a conventional field, but it was composers such as Monteverdi who forged a new path and stitched the seams between the Renaissance and Baroque. The Responsories show Gesualdo’s adherence to the old, ‘Mannerist’ style, full of profuse exaggeration and dramatic hyperbole, yet confined to a polyphonic frame-work. He had taken all the elements as far as they would go, and so it is even more remarkable that the resulting music is a canvas of vivid colours and textures in which the most simple and poignant moments shine through.

In Christus factus est, Joanna Ward breaks down the words into their syllabic components, treating them more like posts on which to hang various musical cells. The texture alternates between a duet for the two highest voices, a segment of chordal building blocks, and an eerie bitonal section which is chilling in its childlike simplicity. The work is a play on formality, challenging perceptions of melody with simultaneous hints at both plainchant and folk song: the austere turned colloquial. The text is commonly used as an antiphon at Mass on Maundy Thursday, and it features later in the Easter sequence with further lines added. Hidden beneath the altar table in the church, the final candle burns out and we are left shrouded in darkness.


Lamentations of Jeremiah Thomas Tallis (c.1505 – 1585)

Watch with me Judith Bingham (b.1952)

Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday Carlo Gesualdo (1566 – 1613)

Christus factus est Joanna Ward (b.1998)

Composer Info

Don Carlo Gesualdo (1566 – 1613), Thomas Tallis (c.1505 – 1585), Judith Bingham (b.1952), Joanna Ward (b.1998)

CD Info

Hyperion CD CDA68348