The service of Tenebrae contains some of the most ancient traditions and rituals of the Christian church. Light and darkness form the heart of the visual experience and the symbolic meaning of the service. The use of a special triangular-shaped candelabrum, known as a “hearse,” dates back to the 7th century, though the term “Tenebrae” itself, meaning shadows, in connection to this Holy Week rite dates back only to the 12th century. Less certain is exactly when it became customary to celebrate the Maundy Thursday matins service the night before (‘The First Nocturn’ of the Triduum Sacrum), which is the service we observe this evening. This service has its roots in monastic practice; it is one of the most somber and deeply moving of the entire liturgical year.
In terms of the Word associated with this service, at the center are the three lesson texts drawn from the Lamentations of Jeremiah. We offer this evening one of the earliest polyphonic settings of the Lamentations (if not the very first) composed in the fifteenth century (ca. 1430/40) by Johannes de Quadris for two unaccompanied voices. Johannes de Quadris, was a cleric and composer associated with St. Mark’s in Venice. Johannes’s setting of the Lamentations was performed each year during Holy Week until 1603, when it was replaced by the first of two 4-voice settings by Giovanni Croce. Though monastic practice at this time is generally thought to be austere, more elaborate settings for Holy Week became widespread during the fifteenth century. That Johannes’s setting was admired and well known is underscored by its appearance in 1506, in an important early publication of sacred music overseen by Ottaviano Petrucci. Johannes’s setting was known outside Venice as well and exists in a manuscript associated with Padua and the humanist circle of Biship Pietro Emiliani. That it continued to be performed at St. Mark’s for a period of over 160 years, under many distinguished maestri di capella (including Willaert, de Rore, Zarlino, and Gabrieli) is a strong statement about its reception in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.
For centuries, liturgical practice at St. Mark’s was pointedly different from worship at the Sistine Chapel, partly in defiance of papal rule. The Lesson texts we have set by Johannes deviate a bit from the norm and use excerpts from the 1st, 2nd and 5th chapters of the Lamentations. The Latin translation preserves the Hebrew letters in the first three chapters, so you will hear them in the first two lessons, where Johannes has given them identical music, functioning like a refrain. Unlike other settings we have done here at Trinity since 2000 (when we first introduced the Tenebrae service), the musical settings of the Hebrew letters you will hear this evening are extremely short (as they are in the Liber Usualis), so they do not provide the same opportunity for meditation that they have when we have used later, more elaborate settings. The two-part canonic writing is for a higher “discantus” voice, whose line is a bit more decorated, and a slightly lower “tenor” part. Johannes’s musical treatment throughout the lessons is highly repetitive, imitative, and quasi-formulaic, as if he is writing down something that emerged from improvised polyphony to a strophic plainchant. This style of composed polyphony was known as cantus figuratus. Each lesson also ends with the plea, “Jerusalem, convertere….” to which Johannes gives identical music, providing an additional refrain structure, but one that ends with a Phrygian cadence (here on A), giving a sense of harmonic incompleteness. The musical motives have slight variants but are inter-related, adding to the cumulative effect of the counterpoint, almost like a musical keening. The piece is mostly in the hypodorian mode. In our transposition, it will sound like a modal version of G minor with significant cadence points on Bb, C, G, and A.
The resonant acoustics in St. Mark’s meant that polyphony could not be heard well in the Nave. The only people who would have been able to hear well were the Doge (who would have been in attendance), the clergy, the choir, and any invited lay guests who would have been positioned relatively close to the sound source. They may have been the only people in attendance at the service in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries anyway. Current research indicates that for those services using polyphony at the Sistine Chapel in that time period, for example, only those singing (some of whom would have also officiated) were present, offering their music to the glory of God and each other. (The popes apparently were not enthusiastic supporters of sacred polyphony.) The singers at St. Mark’s were undoubtedly male, likely highly trained clerical singers, and likely positioned in a raised pulpit. Though fifteenth-century pitch standards are uncertain, we have transposed the music up a 4th to accommodate our voices. We invite you to follow the text in your bulletin insert as light permits.