by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, April 15, 2013.
The old Catholic service of Tenebrae, or “darkness,” is a ceremony of encroaching shadows—the Crucifixion as eclipse. At the beginning of the rite, which takes place on the later days of Holy Week, a stand of fifteen candles is set before the congregation. As psalms are sung and prayers are recited, the candles are extinguished one by one until, by the end, a single flickering light remains. There is no other source of illumination. A strepitus, or loud noise, often made by slamming a book shut or dropping it on the floor, evokes the earthquake that is said to have followed Christ’s death. The congregation files out in silence. At least since the Middle Ages, this sombre piece of sacred theatre has included the chanting of passages from the Book of Lamentations, in which the prophet bewails the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile: “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people!”
In February and March, during the six weeks of Lent, the vocal ensemble Tenet presented a series called “TENEbrae,” given over mainly to Renaissance and Baroque settings of Lamentations. The performances took place at Trinity Church, on lower Broadway, in the late afternoon, as the light was fading. The repertory consisted of Dietrich Buxtehude’s “Membra Jesu nostri” (1680), François Couperin’s “Leçons de Ténèbres” (1714), Thomas Tallis’s Lamentations (circa 1565), Carlo Gesualdo’s Responsoria for Maundy Thursday (1611), three of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “Leçons de Ténèbres” (circa 1680), and the Lamentations of the Spanish master Tomás Luis de Victoria, who, in 1585, published a gigantic collection of music for Holy Week. In a related event, the Trinity choir performed Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with a first-rate Baroque band and soloists drawn from the choir’s ranks, all under the direction of Julian Wachner, the head of music at Trinity. In late April, Wachner will lead a survey of Stravinsky’s religious works, including his Lamentations oratorio, “Threni.” Such fare might be expected to leave a heavy, doleful impression, but I attended all except two events in the Lenten series and repeatedly walked away in an exhilarated state: the music provided illumination of another kind.
For decades, New York was considered a backwater in the earlymusic world, secondary in importance to the thriving scenes in Boston and Berkeley. In recent years, Renaissance and Baroque performance in the city has gained momentum, not least through the vigorous advocacy of a group called Gotham early Music Scene. The ever-growing music program at Trinity is one sign of this revival; Tenet is another. Some of its members have been working together for a decade, initially as the Tiffany Consort. When the soprano Jolle Greenleaf took over as artistic director, in 2009, she raised the group’s profile and enlarged its ambitions. In her first year, she organized a performance of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers, on the occasion of its four-hundredth anniversary; Tenet and allied instrumentalists have now made their presentation of Monteverdi an annual tradition. I saw it in January at St. Mary the Virgin, on West Forty-sixth Street; it was religious music as a total work of art, with voices and instruments arrayed around the church, encircling the audience in a hypnotic web of sound.
The “TENEbrae” series was an even more formidable undertaking, one that in other hands might have been illadvised. A work such as Gesualdo’s Responsoria, with its labyrinthine structure of jarring harmonic shifts, cannot easily be tossed off amid other assignments. Yet Tenet’s singers—on this occasion, Greenleaf, Mellissa Hughes, Luthien Brackett, Matthew Anderson, James Kennerley, and Jonathan Woody—had no trouble maintaining security of pitch and beauty of tone. Wachner conducted, his marked dynamic shifts heightening Gesualdo’s atmosphere of psychological unease. This year, we celebrate, if that is the word, the four-hundredth anniversary of the death of Gesualdo, who murdered his first wife and her lover in a notorious bloodbath; Greenleaf intends to revisit his penitential sacred pieces next season.
If Gesualdo’s Responsoria has a hard, self-punishing tone, Buxtehude’s “Membra Jesu nostri,” a non-liturgical cantata cycle on a Passion theme, exudes sensual mysticism. Christ’s feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and face are lauded and lamented in turn, as if a supplicant were pressing up against a Crucifixion figure. The music unfolds like a ritual procession, discontinuous yet mesmerizing, with lightly dancing arias abutting quasi-minimalist repetitions. The recurrent rising-andfalling figure of the “hands” cantata, with its piercing semitone dissonances, is a sacred image as visceral as anything in el Greco. Tenet’s singers and players registered not only the notes but also the space around the notes: there were superbly timed pauses, lingering contemplations of sustained chords, phrases like exhalations. Robert Mealy, one of America’s leading Baroque violinists, added free, bittersweet ornaments. Wachner chose expansive tempos, yet the work, an hour long, seemed to pass in an extended instant. I looked up at the stained-glass windows and was surprised to find that night had fallen.
Listening to settings of the Book of Lamentations—all performances in the “TENEbrae” series are archived on Trinity’s Web site—I pondered what it meant to have a Jewish text cropping up in a Christian liturgy. In Church history, the inclusion of Lamentations in Holy Week services has not always been a welcoming, interfaith gesture; the book was sometimes read as a foreshadowing of the Jews’ supposed role in the death of Christ. Pope Benedict XIV, in the mid eighteenth century, declared that the Tenebrae ritual reflected “the darkness of the Jewish people who knew not our Lord.” Bach was not free of this polemical usage of the Old Testament. The anonymous libretto of his 1723 cantata “Schauet doch und sehet” takes a heart-rending line from Lamentations— “Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow”—and glosses it thus: “Oh, better that you [Jerusalem] be razed to the ground / Than that Christ’s foe should be heard blaspheming in you.”
Yet a work as austerely ravishing as Victoria’s Lamentations has a way of escaping its context: the music’s emotions bleed across the borders of dogma. In set ting the words Quomodo sedet sola civitas—“How doth the city sit solitary”— Victoria has each of the four parts enter with exposed, sustained tones, giving a sense of universal loneliness. The cycle is marked by luminous sequences of chords, pillar-like but immaterial. In Hebrew, four of the five chapters of Lamentations contain acrostics, with the initial letters of the verses proceeding in alphabetical order; Victoria, like dozens of other composers of the period, incorporated the Hebrew letters into his music, so that there are luxurious melismas on aleph, beth, gimel, and so on. This blending of Latin and Hebrew, not to mention the use of a minormode chant known as the “Spanish tone,” suggests a mystical atmosphere, as if various traditions were being fused in a sacred blur. Victoria, a fervent Catholic who belonged to the court of King Philip II, almost certainly intended no such impression, but he surrendered control of his music when he published it.
Although Trinity is an Episcopal church, it offers a kind of aired-out version of a Tenebrae service, on Wednesday of Holy Week. This spring, in an epilogue to the Tenet concert series, a selection of Victoria’s Lamentations were sung as part of that modified Tenebrae ritual. Candles were set up, and other lights were turned off. The growing grayness of the scene, the lack of an electrical barrier to encroaching night, put me in mind of the Hurricane Sandy blackout—an association heightened by the first reading, from the Book of Habakkuk, which spoke of waters rising and rivers overflowing. The strepitus took the form of a crashing dissonance on the organ. The singers were positioned in the rear loft, so that Victoria’s music, with its images of a ruined and empty city, poured down from above.