Tenebrae – Spy Wednesday

Caravaggio – The Taking of Christ

Numerous churches throughout the world will conduct a Tenebrae service on the evening of Wednesday of Holy Week, today. The service will be essentially the anticipated offices of Matins and Lauds for Maundy Thursday, tomorrow.

One of the responsories will be Amicus meus osculi, of which the setting by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), often called God’s composer,  is below. It tells of the plan of Judas Iscariot to sell our Lord to the authorities and mirrors the Gospel of Palm Sunday just past. It has been suggested that Judas clinched the deal on Wednesday.

Amicus meus osculi me tradidit signo:
Quem osculatus fuero, ipse est, tenete eum:
hoc malum fecit signum,
qui per osculum adimplevit homicidium.

Infelix praetermisit pretium sanguinis,
et in fine laqueo se suspendit.

Bonum erat illi,
si natus non fuisset homo ille.

The sign by which my friend betrayed me was a kiss:
The one I shall kiss, he is your man, seize him.
This was the evil sign he gave,
and through a kiss murder he wrought.

The wretch returned the blood money,
and in the end he hanged himself.

It were better for him had that man never been born.

For the contemplation of friends of CP&S this coming night before bed. I’m sure we too have been guilty of the odd betrayal of Him this past year.

About GC

Poor sinner.
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8 Responses to Tenebrae – Spy Wednesday

  1. Reblogged this on theraineyview and commented:
    I’m sure I knew about Spy Wednesday before now, but if you’d asked me yesterday I wouldn’t have known. Is your parish having Tenebrae today?


  2. GC says:

    therainyview, I might be wrong, but I think it’s called Spy Wednesday, at least occasionally, in Ireland. It seems to be catching on, though, (like Tenebrae services, in fact) although I have only heard of it in recent years. For instance, a friend from Australia called it that in an email today. He will be attending Tenebrae on Wednesday night in his newly established parish, the Parish of Blessed John Henry Newman.


  3. what are the musical elements of this piece?


  4. GC says:

    Jonathan, these notes describe some of the elements to which I think you are referring:

    The Tenebrae Matins was divided, on each day, into three Nocturns each of which required the singing or reciting of three Lessons alternated with three Responsories. The Lessons for the First Nocturn on each day are from the Lamentations. Victoria set these but not the Responsories. In the Second and Third Nocturns of each day Victoria did the opposite and set the Responsories, leaving the Lessons to be chanted by a deacon. Since Victoria wrote the music to adorn the Liturgy, he kept strictly to the repeats prescribed by tradition, which this recording preserves: a repetition of the second section of the opening four-part music after the reduced-voice passage, giving a kind of Da Capo shape: ABCB. This happens in all eighteen pieces. In addition, in the third of each set, the opening section is repeated again at the end: ABCBAB. In this scheme the A and B passages are invariably scored for four voices, while section C is always for fewer voice-parts, and sung by soloists. The detail of the scoring shows how carefully Victoria kept to a plan. The first and third of each group of three Responsories are set for SATB, the second for SSAT (we do not follow the unauthorised modern habit of singing some of these with men’s voices only). The reduced-voice passages are scarcely less ordered, all being for three voices, except the first one which is a duet. In almost every case the solo group in the first Responsory of each set of three is scored for SAT, the third is scored for ATB and the second makes use of the extra soprano part in the full choir, resulting in SSA or SST. This precise scheme serves as a simple framework for the emotional variety in the music.

    Part of the clue as to how Victoria achieved this variety lies in the details of the Passion narrative. For a late Renaissance composer, albeit one who never wrote any madrigals, the story gives unlimited opportunities for different kinds of word-painting, as well as describing states of mind which vary from the supremely tragic to the contemplative. How Victoria encompassed these differences in an idiom so straightforward that it scarcely touches on imitative counterpoint, is one of the great miracles of musical thought. With complete assurance, he describes the innocence of the lamb at the beginning of ‘Eram quasi agnus’; the swords and clubs of ‘Seniores populi’; the lugubrious darkness of ‘Tenebrae factae sunt’; the lion during ‘Animam meam dilectam’; the intense distress in ‘O vos omnes’. At the same time he is capable of writing passages of the most inspired music, without any obvious help from the text: consider the solo section of ‘Iesum tradidit impius’, which does no more than mark time in the narrative yet, with its two answering soprano parts, is perhaps the most memorable section of all.

    The power of Victoria’s Tenebrae Responsories lies in the balance between the words and his setting of them. The text has its own impact, which may be discovered by reading it aloud. Victoria started from this point, being careful to capture the natural speech rhythms, keeping to syllabic setting (and so never indulging in the early Renaissance delight of music for its own sake); and then heightened the meaning of a verbal phrase with the right turn of harmony or fragment of melody. The pared-down musical idiom, unfamiliar to composers before the late 16th century, was lost again during the Baroque period. It has become once again a goal for composers during the 20th century; but, attractive as the idea of an elemental style has proved to be for many, to express oneself clearly requires complete certainty about what one has to say. Victoria remains a model for them all.


  5. Crow says:

    Dear GC
    The Maternal Heart of Mary at Lewisham, in Sydney, which is a parish of the extraordinary form, has Tenebrae on Good Friday evening. It is sung in Gregorian chant. Is it supposed to be on the Wefnesday? To me, it is evocative of the tomb and is probably one of the most theatrical and meaningful things in which I have participated in my life. However, I recall that the Misere Mei was sung in the Sistine Chapel at Tenebrae on a Wednesday when Mozart heard it and noted it down.
    What is the significance of Tenebrae? The extinguishment of the candles, coupled with the clamour by the congregation, at the end is so powerful in the darkness – it brings home the physical loss and this physicality is juxtaposed with the sense of the eternal, as the senses are both heightened, but also disoriented by the loss of the familiar landmarks. As the extinguishment of the light is so powerful, it also serves as a contrast to the Holy Saturday Mass of fire and light. The choir in this setting is beautiful, by the way.


  6. GC says:

    Dear Crow, I think Tenebrae were held in the evenings of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of Holy Week until they were all given the chop late in the reign of Pius XII in his reforms of Holy Week.

    Some churches now may have “Tenebrae services” but they’re not in the current liturgical books. These seem to have them on the Wednesday evening mostly, though other places may have them on the Thursday or Friday. The Blessed John Henry Newman parish, for instance, in Melbourne had Tenebrae services on both Wednesday and Friday evenings last week.

    I expect your Tenebrae service on Good Friday in Lewisham (Sydney) in the Maternal Heart Chapel of the Little Company of Mary sisters, who set up their Lewisham Hospital in inner western Sydney, was very moving indeed.

    Tenebrae is really the morning offices of Lauds and Matins brought forward to the evening before. Wednesday Tenebrae would have lauds and matins of Holy Thursday. Good Friday Tenebrae would be lauds and matins of Holy Saturday.

    It’s a great pity you can’t find them in many places now as, being held with only candle-light and with many readings, psalms and responsories, they were a truly profound way to meditate on the deepest mysteries of our faith. I suppose these days, however, in lots of churches Holy Week is just another occasion to celebrate diversity, inclusion, transitional gender identities and the environment.


  7. Crow says:

    Thank you, GC. I am heartened that Tenebrae is performed in Melbourne. We in Australia have suffered many Marty Hogan Masses – now it is time for the rebels to strike back!
    It is truly the most profound spiritual experience I have encountered, although the complete Easter Triduum must be attended to get the benefit of the contrast between the somber contemplative service and the joy of the Ressurrection. When I describe the service to Protestant or C and E Catholics, they always say “that sounds wonderful, I want to go”! However, it is part of the unfolding landscape of Holy Week and very Catholic. It is probably not for the half-hearted, although my daughter and husband were completely stunned and somewhat shaken by it!
    Thank you for a very informative and thoughtful answer.


  8. GC says:

    Dear Crow, how lovely to hear from you and of your profound experience and that of your family at the Tenebrae at the Lewisham Hospital convent chapel in Sydney, now a personal parish within the Archdiocese.

    Even the twenty years I spent in Australia, decades ago now, I felt were quite grim. Time for “fightback” indeed. A good part of the secular press and the Government-supported media appear to be counting on the demise, or the further taming of the Catholic Church in Australia, as it is the biggest of the historic Churches there. Cardinal Pell in particular, as we’ve seen. Though you may not entirely agree, possibly. A penny for your thoughts – but I digress.


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