Cloisters of Saint John Lateran, Rome. Source:

Saturday, 19 March 2016




Is It Time To Bring Tenebrae Out Of The Shadows ?

By Clare Bowskill.

It is one of the oldest Offices in The Liturgy of The Catholic Church. It features some of the most beautiful music ever written. So why have so many of us never heard of it ? Why am I completely in the dark about Tenebrae ?

One of my jobs, as the new Head of Publicity for The Latin Mass Society, is to promote the wonderful selection of Masses and Services happening in The Traditional Rite across the Country during Holy Week and The Sacred Triduum, the three days leading up to Easter.

Looking at the list, though, l realised that Tenebrae, sung from "Spy Wednesday" in Holy Week, has completely passed me by, and, I suspect, many of my forty-something generation. I had to find out what Tenebrae was and what I was missing out on.

So, over to the experts. Speaking to Charles Finch, who runs the music group "Cantores Missae", and who will be singing Tenebrae at Saint Bede’s, Clapham, London, on Spy Wednesday, in Holy Week. He explained to me that Tenebrae - meaning "Darkness" - is made up of Matins and Lauds from The Divine Office.

It usually takes place on the evenings before each of the days it is assigned to, and takes its name from the gradual extinguishing of Candles during the Service. These Candles are made from unbleached wax - the same as we use for funerals and in Requiem Masses - which represent mourning.

The Candles are lit on a "Hearse", a triangular Candelabra which stands in the Sanctuary. They are snuffed out, one-by-one, after each of the Psalms. At the end, one Candle is left alight, representing The Light of Christ.

This Candle is taken down and hidden, usually behind the Altar. The Church is now left in total darkness, symbolising the Abandonment, the Death and the Burial of Christ. Right at the end of the Service, the Candle is restored, to enable the people to see their way out, but it has been suggested that this also represents the Death and the Resurrection of Christ. For those attending the Service, they know when to rise and leave, as there is a loud noise, made by a "Clapper", or by the knocking of Hymn Books against the Pews.

Charles Finch continues by explaining to me that Matins is divided into three parts, or "Nocturns", each with three Psalms and three Lessons, with their accompanying Responsories. Lauds, which follows, has five Psalms, and then the "Benedictus".

"It is the Responsories that have inspired Composers to write some of their finest Religious Music, none more so than Victoria, whose incomparable settings of the Texts for The Second and Third Nocturns have not been surpassed, and reach out to all, and not just to the observant Catholic. Who can fail to be drawn into the drama of The Lord's Passion when listening to these sublime Works ?"

At Saint Mary Moorfields, Moorgate, London, The Latin Mass Society, under the musical direction of Matthew Schellhorn, are holding all three of The Tenebrae Services, beginning on the Wednesday evening in Holy Week, when, for the first time, the full set of Responsories by the Renaissance composer, Felice Anerio, will be sung by Matthew's Singers "Cantus Magnus". That is twenty-seven pieces of music of breath-taking beauty. Matthew explains to me how some of our greatest Composers “saved their best compositions for moments of extreme desolation.”

Speaking to those that have experienced the awe of a Tenebrae Service, l can be left in no doubt that this precious gem of The Traditional Rite is quite unique in its power to evoke such feelings of intensity and emotion.

From the immortal words of Saint Paul’s Letter to The Philippians: "Christus factus est pro nobis obediens" (Christ became obedient for us unto Death), to the powerful Text from the Responsory
"O vos omnes", "if there be any sorrow like My sorrow", it appears to perfectly evoke the Betrayal, Abandonment, and the Agony of Christ’s Crucifixion on The Cross.

Tenebrae is an Office rich in symbolism, and the music, both the Chant and Polyphony, which at its best contributes powerfully and poignantly to the recounting of the drama of the final days of Our Lord, makes this an Office all the more not to be missed.

Tenebrae will be sung at Saint Mary Moorfields Church, Moorgate, London EC2M 7LS, at 9 p.m. on Spy Wednesday, Holy Thursday and Good Friday; and at Saint Bede’s Church, Clapham Park, London SW12 0LF, at 7.00 p.m. on Spy Wednesday, and at The Brompton Oratory, London SW7 2RP, at 6.30 p.m. on Spy Wednesday, and 10.00 a.m. on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Also in Saint Augustine's Church, Ramsgate; Birmingham Oratory; Saint Walburge's Church, Preston; Saint Mary’s Shrine, Warrington; Saint William of York's Church, Reading, and Saints Peter and Paul and Philomena's Church, New Brighton.

Clare Bowskill is the Publicity Officer for The Latin Mass Society and Director of Music at Saint Mary Magdalen’s Church, Brighton, Sussex.

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