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Carlo Gesualdo Composer

Tenebrae Responsories, W7: Maundy Thursday (a6, 1611)

Performances: 2
Tracks: 11
  • Tenebrae Responsories, W7: Maundy Thursday (a6, 1611)
    Year: 1611
    Genre: Motet
    Pr. Instrument: Chorus/Choir
    • 1.In Monte Oliveti
    • 2.Tristis est anima mea
    • 3.Ecce vidimus eum
    • 4.Amicus meus osculi
    • 5.Judas mercator pessimus
    • 6.Unus ex discipulis meis
    • 7.Eram quasi agnus innocens
    • 8.Una hora non potuistis
    • 9.Seniores populi consilium
    • 10.Omnes amici mei
No account of Carlo Gesualdo's life omits the scandal of 1590. In that year, Gesualdo, the Prince of Venosa, caught his young wife and her lover in a compromising situation; he murdered them both, also killing his child for good measure. The Prince remarried and continued to compose Italian madrigals in the most advanced chromatic fashion. Later in his life, however, a somewhat lesser-known religious mania seized him. Gesualdo maintained a coterie of young men whose principal duties were to ritually flagellate their master. It was from the pen of this later, perhaps even more twisted mind that the 1611 Tenebrae Responsories emerged. In this series of 27 penitential Holy Week motets, Gesualdo applies to the religious realm the same passionate chromatic style he used throughout his life to express eroticism.

Liturgically, the Responsories serve the three days that climax the penitential season of Lent. On the evenings of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, the church commemorates the passion of Christ with the offices of Tenebrae. Each service comprises three "nocturns," each of which in turn contains trios of Psalms, Lessons, and Responsories. The service ends in poignant darkness as the candles are snuffed one by one. Gesualdo set the texts for all nine Responsories on all three days, texts that detail in often dramatic detail the suffering and sacrifice of Christ. Though he rigidly follows the liturgical responsory form, however, Gesualdo probably did not intend this music for the public Catholic liturgy. These intensely personal and idiosyncratic pieces can only have been intended for his own ears.

Gesualdo omits very few facets of the avant-garde madrigal style. In the tradition of Wert and Luzzaschi, he alternates between homophonic and imitative writing based on local text details. Harmonically and melodically, however, he surpasses their wildest efforts. He fills the music with awkward leaps and sudden chromatic shifts; voices continually enter on dissonant suspensions and leap away from the harmonic resolution. Images in the text—lamenting tears, swords and spears, the earthquake, the deep lake into which Christ descended—conjure up extraordinarily expressive musical gestures from him. Numerous passages describing Jesus' journey to death swim in a murk of nearly twelve-tone chromatic harmonies; the crucifixion itself inspires a piercing series of cross-relations. To hear this music is to experience the wounds and the despair of Christ on the cross.

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