Tenebrae Responds for Good Friday - Music by Gesualdo and Palestrina
Sunday 20th March 2016, 8:00 pm
Liverpool Cathedral Lady Chapel
Tonight’s choral programme presents two well-known Italian composers of the sixteenth century, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Carlo Gesualdo. Each took his name from his place of birth, each was married twice and had children, each composed sacred and secular music and saw his works published. There the parallels must end. The typical musician served the church or some princely patron and many were in holy orders: Gesualdo was himself a prince and employed musicians to perform his music. Palestrina’s first wife died young of plague: Gesualdo murdered his first wife, (and lover, post coitus, dragging their bodies outdoors for public display). Palestrina’s sons continued composition in their father’s style: Gesualdo’s son hated him and predeceased him. Palestrina was of humble origin: Gesualdo was a nobleman, Prince of Venosa, tracing his family back some six centuries. He had cardinals for uncles on his mother’s and his father’s sides and acquired a third as a result of his second marriage. Furthermore, one of them, his mother’s brother, Carlo Borromeo, was proclaimed a saint during the composer’s lifetime. Gesualdo holds a unique position among musicians of any kind. But he was not a happy man. He spent a short but profitable and exciting time at the musically speaking superbly well-appointed court at Ferrara, but played out his later years wracked with guilt and fear of damnation, in a state of despondency, debauchery and ill-health. He commissioned a painting for the east wall of the chapel he had had built in 1592 at the family seat at Gesualdo (east of Naples) which depicts Christ the Redeemer sitting in judgement on high, a penitent Carlo, kneeling and supported by his uncle-saint, bottom left, some vague figures bottom centre suspended above the fires of hell - probably first wife and lover and a child - and named, holy figures disposed right and left around the edge, who gaze upon the Redeemer but point toward Carlo. It was painted in 1609 by Giovanni Balducci. It was in these latter years that Gesualdo tackled the 27 responds for the last three days of Holy Week, published in 1611.
The Offices of Matins and Lauds for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday (the Sacrum Triduum) were called Tenebrae (darkness), perhaps because during the service candles were extinguished one by one or possibly after the words Tenebrae factae sunt (darkness covered the earth), the fifth respond for Good Friday. The offices included sections from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the Psalms, responds and biblical reading with meditations upon them. The texts of the responds are of great antiquity, reaching back to the time of St Benedict and Gregory the Great, around 15 centuries ago and the chant melodies may well date from those times. They have a formal structure: section A, section B, section C (the verse), which is followed by a repetition of section B. Each of the days has 9 responds assigned to it, 27 in all, and the death of Jesus is described in the central text: Tenebrae factae sunt. The texts served as inspiration for many Renaissance composers including Lassus, Palestrina and Victoria. They usually adopted the ABCB pattern.
The dark and desolate quality of the texts, reflections on the events of Jesus passion and death, may have accorded with Gesualdo’s depression and he brought to bear upon them the extraordinary battery of compositional techniques, sometimes wild and shocking, that he had developed as he progressed through the six sets of madrigals he published, so as to depict images and emotions that the responds evoke. The complex polyphonic textures that he created are far removed from the often formulaic patterns of much sixteenth century composition which is constructed on simple modal and diatonic harmonic principles. He pushed chromaticism - juxtaposing familiar chords in unusual sequence together with the use of unfamiliar chords and tortured passages – far further than any other composer of the period and it is for this audacious, if wilful, virtuosity than he continues to fascinate us today. Two or three centuries were to pass before anything like his harmonies were heard again.
It would be too taxing for singers and listeners alike to perform all Gesualdos settings consecutively. Tonight we perform the Good Friday Responds 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 in Gesualdo’s settings, with the intervening texts to the original chant, (superficially less involved with the burden of the text but which are splendid melodies in themselves). Idiosyncrasy is heard immediately in the first respond. Omnes amici . . . starts on a firm and clear chord of B flat symbolising All my friends’ . . Almost at once, the B flat is followed by a B natural, an E flat by its natural and back again, reflecting the uncertainty of those friends. ‘dereliquerunt me’ follows immediately and the texture is reduced to two voices which fade to nothing, illustrating have forsaken me. A further firm chord follows to indicate unity of purpose - all have prevailed . . . , and to reflect ‘they that lay in ambush . . .’ the music briefly enters a thicket of twisted chromatic chords, simple in isolation but eerie in sequence, (technically achieved as above by changing voices abruptly from for example F natural to F sharp - very unusual for the times). That is just the beginning – 17 bars - of the first respond. The texts afford many opportunities for illustration of this kind which Gesualdo seizes upon in his idiosyncratic manner. Gesualdo had published several volumes of madrigals with Italian texts and these settings in Latin are in a similar vein, madrigal spirituali. They are loaded with far more detail than is usual for music of the period and demand a leisurely tempo for performance. We do not know how he would have performed them. While women routinely took the upper parts in his madrigals, the voice range of the responds suggests use of falsettists. The responds themselves form part of the office of Matins, sung in the early hours of the morning. Since these offices in Holy Week also included numerous psalms and readings from Lamentations, no cathedral chapter could have consented to include Gesualdo’s extended settings in an already lengthy service and we have to suppose a private devotion of some sort in his own chapel, with the painting of his seeking forgiveness on the wall above the altar. Gesualdo was an expert lutenist and the responds might have been first performed with this accompaniment.
Palestrina, harmonically speaking the polar opposite to Gesualdo, was the conventional if exceptionally able servant of the church, writing works for texts from the liturgy, performing them in several of the Roman churches, many of which he assembled into sets for publication. Tonight’s programme of Responds is framed between Palestrina’s radiant motet Pueri Hebraeorum describing Jesus’ triumphal entry in Jerusalem and his setting of Stabat mater dolorosa (Jacopone di Todi, 1240-1306). Stabat is a work of exceptional serenity, a sequence of the simplest chords swaying between duple and triple rhythm with some spectacular vocal scoring - a perfect response to the poignancy of Jacopone’s text. Its transparency forms a total contrast to the anguish of Gesualdo’s convoluted harmonies.
Pueri Hebraeorum . . . Palestrina (Antiphon at Terce, Palm Sunday) The children of the Hebrews bearing olive branches went forth to meet the Lord, crying and saying, Hosanna in the highest.
Omnes amici mei . . . (Respond 1, Matins, Good Friday) Gesualdo All my friends have forsaken me, and they that lay in ambush for me have prevailed: he whom I loved hath betrayed me: and with fierce looks they have cruelly struck me and given me vinegar to drink. They have cast me out among the wicked and have not spared my life, and with fierce looks they have cruelly struck me and given me vinegar to drink.
Velum templi . . .(Resp 2) Chant The veil of the temple was rent: and all the earth shook. The thief from the cross cried out saying, ‘Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom’. The rocks were rent and the graves opened and there arose many bodies of the saints that slept and all the earth shook.
Vinea mea electa . . .(Resp 3) Gesualdo O my chosen vineyard, I planted thee. How art thou turned to bitterness, that thou shouldest crucify me and release Barabbas. I have hedged thee, picked stones out of thee and have built a tower. How art thou turned to bitterness, that thou shouldest crucify me and release Barabbas.
Tamquam ad latronem . . .(Resp 4) Chant Ye are come out as against a thief with swords and clubs. I was daily with you in the temple teaching and ye held me not: and lo, after I have been scourged ye lead me to be crucified. And when they had laid hands on Jesus and taken him, he said to them: I was daily with you in the temple teaching and ye held me not: and lo, after I have been scourged ye lead me to be crucified.
Tenebrae factae sunt . . .(Resp 5) Gesualdo Darkness covered the earth while the Jews crucified Jesus. And about the ninth hour, Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘my God, why dost thou forsake me?’ Crying with a loud voice Jesus said, ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit’. And bowing his head, he gave up the ghost.
Animam meam dilectam . . .(Resp 6) Chant I delivered the soul I loved into the hands of the wicked and my inheritance is become unto me as a lion in the forest. My adversary inveighed again me saying, ‘gather ye together and hasten ye to devour him’. They placed me in a lonely desert and all the earth mourned for me, for there was none that would know me and do well. Men without mercy rose up against me and spared not my life for there was none that would know me and do well.
Tradiderunt me in manus impiorum . . . (Resp 7) Gesualdo They delivered me into the hands of the impious and cast me out among the wicked and spared not my life. The mighty gathered together against me and like giants stood against me. Strangers rose up against me and the mighty sought my life and like giants stood against me.
Jesum tradidit impius . . . (Resp 8) Chant An impious man betrayed Jesus to the chief priests and elders of the people: But Peter followed him from afar to see the end. And they led him to Caiphas the high priest where the scribes and pharisees were gathered together but Peter followed him from afar to see the end.
Caligaverunt oculi mei . . .(Resp 9) Gesualdo My eyes are darkened by my tears, for he is far from me that comforted me. See, all ye people if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow. O all ye that pass by, behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.
Stabat mater dolorosa . . . (Feast of the Seven Dolours of the Blessed Virgin Mary), Palestrina The sorrowing mother stood weeping at the cross on which her son hung. A sword pierced her sorrowful and anguished soul. O how sad and afflicted was that blessed mother of the only-begotten, who grieved and wailed and trembled as she saw the pain of her glorious child. Who is there who would not weep to see the mother of Christ in such distress? Who cannot be saddened to see the holy mother suffering with her son? She saw Jesus in agony from the scourging for the sins of his people. She saw her sweet child dying forsaken as he yielded up his spirit.
Ah mother, fount of love, make me feel the strength of thy sorrow that I may mourn with thee. Make my heart burn with love for Christ the King that it may please him. Holy Mother, may thou fix firmly in my heart the blows of the crucified. May I share the sufferings of thy son, who was wounded and who deigned to suffer so for me. Make me to weep with thee, that I may bemoan the crucified one so long as I shall live. I long to stand with thee at the cross and join with thee in thy mourning. Noble Virgin of virgins, be not bitter with me, let me lament with thee. Let me bear Christ’s death, the burden of his passion, and let me remember his blows. May I be wounded by these blows, overwhelmed by the cross, before the love of thy son. Kindled and inflamed, may I be defended by thee, o Virgin, in the Day of Judgement. May I be guarded by the cross, secured by Christ’s death and sustained by thy grace. When my body dies, may to my soul be given the glory of paradise.