Music for Holy Week – what does it mean?

On 11 April, at this year’s St John’s Smith Square Holy Week Festival,  Musica Secreta will be giving the London premiere of the recently discovered complete Lamentations of Jeremiah for Good Friday by Antoine Brumel.  This performance is preceded by one at St Paul’s Huddersfield on 9 March – and will be repeated on 1 July at Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh. We are really looking forward to seeing you at one of these concerts!

The tradition of music for Holy Week is centuries old, setting texts of almost unimaginable grief, through the story of Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion. But through its symbolism, the ancient ritual of Tenebrae (in Catholic worship, Matins and Lauds for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday) also tells a more universal story of hope literally being snuffed out. The natural events of Good Friday are metaphorically re-enacted: the eclipse by the extinguishing of candles are one by one, until there is no light in the church at all; the earthquake by a thundering noise, made by beating clappers or slamming books. Finally, when all vestige of hope is gone and all is silent, a single light re-emerges.

Most of the music we associate with Holy Week belongs to the liturgy for Tenebrae, particularly the lessons drawn from the Book of Lamentations (or the Lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah); the responsories, the chants that follow the lessons; and the Miserere, which was sung in complete darkness. In the Lamentations, Jeremiah grieves for destruction of Jerusalem, when the Babylonians flattened the city and took almost all the survivors into captivity. The early Church fathers who composed the liturgy used the story of Jerusalem as a metaphor for both Jesus’s suffering, and the hope that his sacrifice gave to Christian believers.

Before the beginning of the sixteenth century, the music of Tenebrae was austere, and often restricted to a single line of chant. But more intricate and impressive Holy Week polyphony got a boost when Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici became Pope Leo X in 1513. He began to sponsor more elaborate ceremonies in the Sistine Chapel, creating a tradition that lasted for centuries, and challenging composers to produce works of searing emotional impact for the most important, and symbolically rich, week of the Christian year.

The extravagant, spectacle- and music-loving Leo was not necessarily everyone’s idea of perfect pontiff material: it seems hardly a coincidence that Martin Luther finally lost patience with the Church during Leo’s tenure. Moreover, in Leo’s previous position as Pope Julius II’s legate with the Papal troops during the Italian Wars, he had taken part in two of the most notorious and bloody events of 1512: the Sack of Ravenna and Sack of Prato, in which it was said over 5000 people died.

Perhaps Leo’s fascination with Tenebrae was born of guilt. The Italian Wars were brutal, often involving the razing of cities and the eradication of entire populations, either by murdering citizens on the spot or taking them prisoner and selling them into slavery. A scorched-earth policy would also ensure that re-settling and rebuilding would be as difficult as possible. It is not hard to see why, in those years of desolation, Jeremiah’s lament was so resonant for Europe’s faithful.

Tenebrae offered Renaissance worshippers perspectives that they understood first-hand: the frank and horrific account of disaster (whether the result of divine retribution or human cruelty); the sorrow of and for captives in dire need and distress; anger at false prophets and weak or wicked leadership; personal defeat, confusion, resignation, grief; and finally a plea to the people to return to righteousness. Holy Week was an opportunity for people to reflect on just how awful life could be, but also on how out of the darkness came the light of redemption.

Tenebrae’s sombre themes are told over and over in the history of human experience. I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to consider how the music of Tenebrae can speak to the anxieties of the modern world: climate emergency, the refugee crisis, fake news, inequality, extremism, the horrors of conflict, the terror of tyranny – take your pick of what we feel ails us now. The point of the music, in all its heartwringing beauty, is, I’m sure, to promote reflection, catharsis, and eventually comfort, as there is always a sense of hope that manages to break the surface of despair. For audiences and musicians alike, the music of Holy Week, even as it plumbs the depths of human suffering, can also be profoundly healing.