Leçons de Ténèbres

François Couperin

Leçons de Ténèbres

About this work

François Couperin, called "le grand" to distinguish him from other members of his illustrious musical family, was principally known as a keyboard composer. He published four large volumes of keyboard music and a learned treatise on keyboard ornamentation; J.S. Bach even knew some of Couperin's harpsichord music. Yet as one of the favored organists within the French Chapelle Royale, François Couperin also was required to compose and perform sacred music for some of the greater feasts of the liturgical year. Couperin's contemporary Delalande served the Sun King with grand motets that deployed vast choral and instrumental forces; Couperin preferred smaller forms. It is thus in the realm of the petit motet where Couperin the miniaturist shines. His three Leçons de Ténèbres encapsulate the extreme pathos of their Lamentations texts within an intimate musical space.

In Couperin's time, the Catholic Church had been singing texts from the Lamentations of Jeremiah as a solemn observance of Holy Week for many centuries. For each of three nights -- Holy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday -- the evening service of "Tenebrae" contained three lessons from the Old Testament book of Lamentations, and concluded by plunging the church into darkness. However, advances in music and fashion had somewhat changed the nature of the service. Many of the smarter set in Paris went to the Abbey of Longchamp on the outskirts of town to hear splendid operatic singers perform the Lessons; the church even charged admission. Couperin apparently wrote his Tenebrae Lessons for this very Abbey. Unfortunately, only three of Couperin's nine lessons survive. He published these three in the mid-1710s, between his first and second keyboard volumes; his preface refers to the composition of further lessons. The three surviving lessons (two for soprano and basso continuo, the third for soprano duet) serve the liturgy of Holy Wednesday and set the first 14 chapters of Lamentations 1. Couperin preserves the Hebrew letters that begin each verse; the poetic letters point out the acrostic nature of the original poem. Each letter he then sets in a lush, melismatic style. The bulk of the text arrives in a rich mixture of restrained French recitative style and daringly chromatic Italian arioso; highly dissonant ornaments encrust the surface. The entire piece slowly builds in expressive power: Couperin extends and embellishes the "Jerusalem, convertere" that concludes each lesson; the entire third lesson blossoms into duet textures, brimming with dissonant suspensions.