Tenebrae

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Recording by Norrköping Symphony Orchestra,
conducted by Martyn Brabbins
By kind permission of Bis Records

The Latin word tenebrae is rich in meaning: darkness; night; unconsciousness; death; blindness; obscurity; dungeon; the underworld. All these definitions helped to create the sound-world of this piece, which often uses the darkest colours of the orchestra.

Tenebrae is also an office of the Christian church associated with Holy Week. Taking place at night, the liturgy is characterised by the gradual extinguishing of candles, until the service ends in complete darkness.

While the piece has no religious associations, it takes as its starting point a fragment from the second of Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday, Tristis est anima mea. The passage forms the basis of almost all the musical material and undergoes many transformations as the work proceeds.

Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa (1566-1613), is one of the most extraordinary figures of the late Renaissance. As well as composing music of exceptional chromatic intensity, he is notorious for having murdered his wife, Donna Maria d’Avalos, and her lover, the Duke of Andria. The crimes are well-documented in contemporary court records, which detail the shocking events of the night of 16 October 1590. Returning unexpectedly from a deliberately fabricated hunting expedition, the Prince discovered the lovers in flagrante and, with the assistance of his servants, killed them in a frenzied attack. Legend has it that Gesualdo subsequently ordered the murder of his infant child, who he believed bore a strong resemblance to the Duke, by having the cradle violently swung until the child expired. Whether or not this is true, it is known that his final years were spent in isolation and increasing despair and that his most significant compositions, with their overwhelming emphasis on remorse and suffering, date from this period. It is possible to imagine Gesualdo using his art as a form of expiation for his crimes.

The sound-world of this piece draws an analogy with the psychological and spiritual darkness that ultimately overwhelmed the tragic Prince. Structurally, the work divides into two roughly equal halves, each rising to a violent climax before subsiding. The second part has the character of a free passacaglia, based on a combination of the Tristis est anima mea fragment and a lullaby-like melody first heard in the violas.

Tenebrae was mainly composed in 2008 for the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra. It is dedicated to Martyn and Karen Brabbins.

John Pickard