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The Dark Hours


      In 1680, François Chaperon, maître de musique of the Sainte-Chapelle, entrusted the setting of some of the verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah to Michel Richard de Lalande and Jean-Féry Rebel, his brother-in-law. Lalande’s first wife was Anne Rebel, the eldest child of Jean Rebel, renowned for the beauty of her voice. The editor of the Mercure Galant wrote in 1702: “We have never heard a greater voice than hers, it is incomparable in its sweetness, and perfectly agile. She possesses a lightness of emission and a clarity that are almost inexpressible, with a marvellous sense of rhythm as well as admirable diction.” Jeanne and Marie-Anne de Lalande, their daughters, also became famous singers, noted for the beauty of their voices and their exceptional musicality; Louis XIV awarded them pensions at an early age. The Leçons de Ténèbres of 1680, now lost, probably provided material for the Tenebrae compositions that have come down to us. Although Lalande had written his Leçons and his Miserere for solo voice for the nuns of the convent of the Assumption, they were actually sung, like many of his works for female voices, by his daughters (“à l’admiration de tout Paris”). His Leçons de Ténèbres and Miserere must therefore have been composed some time before 1711, for that year Jeanne and Marie-Anne died (aged twenty-four and twenty- three) in the smallpox epidemic that had also carried off Louis XIV's eldest son a few weeks previously.

      Although Lalande composed the complete cycle of lessons for the Tenebrae offices (attested by Philidor in 1729), only the third lesson for each day has come down to us. As Lalande was in the habit of reworking his scores, it is unlikely that the version we possess (published posthumously in 1730) is in its original state. The Miserere, on the other hand—which has come down to us in manuscript form—is in a better state of preservation, its popularity having ensured that it remained in the repertoire, in church and concert, throughout the reign of Louis XV.

      The Lessons (from the Latin “lectiones,” “readings”) for the Tenebrae offices are taken from the Old Testament Lamentations of Jeremiah (sixth century BC), a vast elegy on the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem, when they were invaded and devastated by the Babylonians—seen as punishment for the sins of Israel. Besides their place in the Jewish liturgy as a commemoration of the ensuing diaspora, the laments are used by the Christian Church to express its grief over the Passion and death of Jesus Christ. Like the penitential psalms—of which Psalm 50 (the Miserere mei Domine, “Have mercy upon me, 0 God”) is probably the finest example—the Lessons serve as a reminder of religious history. Jeremiah makes constant reference to God and offers Christians a model of repentance and conversion.

      The Office of Tenebrae was in fact that of Matins for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Saturday, the three nights of Holy Week known as the Triduum Sacrum. Matins being such lengthy services, held at such an early hour, the office was moved during the reign Louis XIV to the previous evening. Thus the Thursday service came to be referred to as that of Wednesday, and so on.

      The name Tenebrae (“darkness”) derives from the spectacular ritual of gradually extinguishing all the candles—fifteen, set in a great triangular chandelier—as the service unfolded as a reminder of the gradual abandonment of Jesus by his disciples and the darkness that came over the earth at the time of the Crucifixion. A single candle, generally concealed behind the altar, was left alight as evidence of the Resurrection.

      For each of the three Nocturnes making up the Matins service, three psalms were sung with their three antiphons, and three lessons were followed by their responsories. For the first Nocturne, the lessons were based on passages from the Lamentations of Jeremiah (poems 1, 3, and 5). Each verse of the first four poems of the Lamentations begins with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet; those of the fifth poem do not, which explains their absence in the Lessons for Good Friday, based on this poem. The Hebrew letters were given lengthy melismatic embellishment, while the verses of the poems generally received a more sober treatment. This alternation of richness and simplicity was typical of the style of the Tenebrae office. It was also consistent with the dualism that existed between the obvious theatricality of the service, sung by professionals, and the contemplative, introspective mood of the texts, which expressed affliction and penitence.

      Tenebrae music was very fashionable at the end of the reign of Louis XIV. Some of the greatest composers of the day, including Michel Lambert, Marc Antoine Charpentier, Guillaume Gabriel Nivers, Sébastien de Brossard, Jean-François Lalouette, François Couperin, Nicolas Clérambault, and Jean Gilles, made contributions to the form. All of them except the latter, who opted for a concertante style, took pains to respect the simplicity that was appropriate to the period of penitence preceding the celebration of the Passion of Jesus Christ. The use of musical instruments was forbidden by the Catholic Church during Holy Week, and the Lessons were generally sung by one (e.g. Lalande, Couperin) or two voices, and continuo. Providing variety in the instruments of the continuo and adding written or improvised instrumental preludes and postludes to the verses were a creative means of circumventing the rule.

      Many eyewitness accounts testify to the popularity of the female singers in the Tenebrae services; the population of Paris would throng the churches to hear them. Le Cerf de la Viéville complained that the religious atmosphere on such occasions often left much to be desired. Actresses would be employed occasionally to sing a Lesson: “they are placed behind a curtain, which they draw back now and again to smile at their supporters in the congregation.” Virtuosity—particularly meaningful in the ornamentation of the Hebrew letters at the beginning of the verses and in the finesse of the harmonic treatment—undoubtedly played a part in the success of these compositions.

      Combining contemplative simplicity with virtuosity, Lalande’s Miserere for solo voice and Leçons de Tenebres were written for nuns, who had little access to musical instruments. The twenty verses of the Miserere would follow the traditional alternation of ornate solos and verses sung in plainchant by the choir of nuns (they are performed tonight in polyphony). Contrasting with the austere dignity of the alternate verses, the solo part in the Miserere and in the Leçons de Tenebres calls for a voice possessing the versatility and richness that made Anne Rebel and her daughters so popular. The refinement of the scoring and its stylistic variety are obviously the work of a man well versed in the delicate art of the petit motet, as well as in compositions for solo voice; his Italian style of expression may have seemed excessive in his day. In style and aesthetics, the Miserere and the Leçons de Tenebres are very similar, but the composer uses a richer variety of musical forms in the latter and, contrary to contemporary practice, recitative passages are rare.

      In the short, desolate verses of the Lesson for Maundy Thursday, the harmonic treatment is particularly effective in its evocation of darkness (“In tenebrosis”), based on the imperturbable throbbing of the bass line in a low register and in the dismal key of F minor, associated at that time with lamentation and the lugubrious. The Italian influence is clear in this Lesson, as is that of the later air de cour, and the composer makes use of da capo (repetition of the recitative “0 vos omnes” after the aria in Lamed).

      Faithful to the Tenebrae aesthetic, Lalande skilfully cultivates the duality(or ambiguity), of the work, bringing out the feelings of penitence and delight, austerity and charm, lamentation and hope, by means of contrasting affects and by turning his back on the tradition of using lengthy recitative passages. In the Miserere the same alternation of contrition and faith offers a reading of the psalm’s message that is hopeful rather than remorseful. Note, for example, the graceful “Asperges me,” with its exultant vocalises and its da capo, or the “Redde mihi,” and the lightness and determination of the final “Tunc acceptabis.”

      The Leçons de Tenebres and the Miserere should not be seen merely as demonstrations of the composer’s brilliant artistry, however, or as a kind of musical spectacle. In his Leçons, prayer, remembrance, and the spirit of penitence are always evoked by means of expressive processes borrowed from the art of declamation. The theatrical exploitation of silence (“Attendite”) is an example, as are the emphatic repetition of words (“convertere”) and the recurrence of lines of text within the same Lesson (“Recordare, Domine”). The same concern for expression and rhetorical effect are found in the Miserere. For instance, the successive negations of the verse “Ne projicias me a facie tua: et spiritum sanctum tuum ne auferas a me” (“Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me”) are emphasised by the use of silences over sixth chords. The composer also makes effective use of echo between the voice and the continuo, and the “Sacrificium Deo” takes the very appropriate form of a long declamatory lament in récitatif mesuré.

      Rather than as a secularisation of the office or a corruption of faith, Lalande’s Tenebrae setting may be seen as representing the very essence of the concert, which, especially in the Catholic tradition, had no reason to be incompatible with the liturgy. The congregation, distanced somewhat, received and enjoyed the beauty and accomplishment of this music which, in the aesthetics of the Counter Reformation, was perfectly in keeping with liturgical decorum. Florid ornamentation and its contrary, eloquent silence, characterise the verses as well as the Hebrew letters. The Italianate vocal style favoured here by Lalande is accompanied by an easy flow in the ornamentation that brings it close to improvisation. Thus, the essential element in this composition is not the display of professional virtuosity, but the expression of the passions. The latter, indistinguishable from the act of singing, are expressed through the physical and vocal presence of the singer, in a gesture that is both ephemeral and sensitive. Because it simulates improvisation and communicates the silent message of lamentation, the ornamentation belongs to the here and now of the celebration, and could no more be reduced to a technical demonstration than it could be completely determined by the composer.

      As in the “O” motets or the “O” antiphons for Advent, the music of the Leçons de Tenebres and the Miserere seems to melt away the meaning of the words. The ornamentation creates a feeling of expectancy that is typical of mystical writing. The rich ornamentation of the Hebrew letters, the vocalises that embellish the verses, the silences scattered throughout the Miserere, momentarily blur the words, as if the sound were thus taking over from a verbal meaning that is powerless to depict the passions. The embellished letters, whose flowing vocalizations seem to come from an earlier world in which the word was of no consequence, mark the fragile border between the prophetic value of the text and an opening onto the ineffable, conducive to meditation and contemplation.

      Like Psalm 50, Jeremiah’s Lamentations are a paragon of meditation, in expectation of the Resurrection of the Messiah. They represent the archetypal lament, the atavistic lament, and ultimately the lament of the Christian soul, which can but be elevated by the great beauty, ephemerality, and sensitivity of music.