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Carlo Gesualdo Composer

Tenebrae Responsories, W7: Good Friday (a6, 1611)

Performances: 4
Tracks: 25
  • Tenebrae Responsories, W7: Good Friday (a6, 1611)
    Year: 1611
    Genre: Motet
    Pr. Instrument: Chorus/Choir
    • 1.Velum templi
    • 2.Vinea mea electa
    • 3.Tamquam ad latronem
    • 4.Tenebrae factae sunt
    • 5.Animam meam dilectam
    • 6.Tradiderunt me
    • 7.Adeamus ergo
    • 8.Cagliaverunt

1.Velum templi

The inner life of Gesualdo's important music stems from the unpredictable expressive inflections of speech. As ambitious poets of later centuries would claim for their work, each work by Gesualdo, who wrote many of his own texts, attempts to give utterance to a sound that has never before existed in the world. In pursuit of that goal, almost all of his music is through-composed, following constantly changing trajectories. The only exceptions are the Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Week, which are bound to follow an aBcB sectional pattern. Despite their formal constraints, Gesualdo is utterly himself in these works, and brings newness into the world with them in other ways. In 1611 the complete Responsories, a liturgical cycle of Passion texts, had not often been set. Composers seeking a large-scale form in which to work out larger musical problems turned mostly to the Mass. Christobal de Morales, was perhaps the only composer to set the entire cycle during the entire first half of the 16thcentury. More were composed during the second half of the century, but it remained fairly unusual and never gained the prominence of the Mass.

Velum templi is the second Ressponsory in the cycle for Good Friday. "Tenebrae" means essentially "dark and light". In the ceremonies for Holy Week numerous candles were lit in the church and then extinguished one by one. This ritual symbolised the darkness of the crucifixion, when the light of Christ went out of the world. Gesualdo was himself in the darkest period of his life when he composed these, his final lonely, demented years. Judging by the emotional intensity of these works, many believe he identified his own struggles with those of Christ. Far from blasphemous, such identification follows a Jesuit injunction that artists dealing with the Passion must sense the horrors personally. Gesualdo sets every word he can in the most intense, emotive way possible using all musical means at his disposal. He never lets us escape.

© All Music Guide

2.Vinea mea electa

If people wonder why Gesualdo, a natural innovator and highly dramatic composer, didn't work in the theatrical forms emerging during his time, let it be pointed out that the service for the Responsories of Holy Week was visually the most dramatic and theatrical of the entire church year. There's little doubt that Gesualdo found an opportunity in the Responsory cycle to dramatize his own internal struggles. Few composers of his time or before approached these texts with anything but calm detachment; Gesualdo's overflow with emotion.

During the service, the church is illuminated by a number of candles and lamps that are extinguished one by one over the course of the days, until a lone candle remains. That is then hidden behind the altar so that only its faint luminescence is visible. Finally, after the prayer Respice, quaesmus Domine "…a noise is made by knocking on the stalls of the choir until the lighted candle re-appears behind the altar. All then rise and retire in silence." Only the dictates of musical style imposed by the forces of the counter-reformation seem to have hindered more composers from seizing on this extraordinary opportunity at dramatic expression.

Vinea mea electa is the third of the nine Responsories. It shows among other things how Gesualdo was able to build a complete harmonic design almost entirely on triads. His ‘unprepared dissonances' in fact are almost always deliberate enharmonic movements away from whatever key he's clearly working in, so when, for example, a tooth-aching dissonance emerges on the word ‘bitterness' its full strength is experienced. How else could Gesualdo's crunchy harmonic language continue to attract so much troubled attention? Without his deliberate setting and breaking from keys, the chromaticisms and dissonances would flatten out into boring, undifferentiated muck that no one would have time to bother with. Instead we have a terrifyingly well-composed, and functionally tonal music that carves shapes of the deepest anguish upon the material of our minds.

© All Music Guide

3.Tamquam ad latronem

Music and architecture, especially in conjunction with each other, were understood by the forces of the counter-reformation as the church's most powerful tools of propaganda. They make the most obvious and irresistible appeal to human emotions. One of the main objectives for the churchly arts established was that the act of worship must be made to glow with an emotional zeal that will enrapture the heart. In part this made room for the allowance of intense chromaticism within church music, because as such it did not interfere with or contradict the other dictum that text must be set so that it remains clear and comprehensible. A composer before Gesualdo named Vincentino in fact had specifically been solicited by the church to write a mass "in the chromatic manner," although the work does not survive.

Gesualdo's highly chromatic Tenebrae Responsoria for Holy Week therefore had a context in musical practice and thinking at the time. He was far less artistically isolated than is often assumed. Indeed he was a passionate, violent, eccentric man, and those personal qualities do come forth in the music. But the intensity of emotion in his sacred music and its chromaticism, especially the Responses, was quite in line with counter-reformationist passions and ideas. St. Ignatius, if he listened, certainly would've understood what Gesualdo was getting at. As per Jesuit injunctions to artists, he fully identified his own sorrows with those of Christ so as to truly know their horrors. In the process he produced a terrifying music of incomparable emotional power.

© All Music Guide

4.Tenebrae factae sunt

The texts of the Tenebrae Responses for Holy Week are unquestionably some of the most affecting in the entire Catholic liturgy. Despite this, when Gesualdo came to compose his highly expressive works on the texts, there was literally no precedent. As if in timidity before words of such vast religious import, being the Passion, the few composers previous to him who composed Responsorial cycles used music that was rather simple and emotionally toned-down, solemn and grave, often barely even polyphonic. In working in this mode, Gesualdo was also dealing with formal constraints of a kind he had never dealt with before. Virtually all of his other music is through-composed, and gossamer to say the least, while Responsories have to follow an aBaC sectional pattern. Yet he seems to have found in the texts points of identification with his own anguish, and in doing so easily overcame the formal obstacle. Such identification with the suffering of Jesus was perfectly in line with Jesuit teachings to artists, and in those terms entirely appropriate.

Tenebrae factae sunt, the fifth of the nine-part Responsory cycle, in line with the text which begins "Darkness descended..." is one of its bitterest contributions. From a somber chordal opening, the piece unfolds into a network of gorgeous, anguished dissonances sharing space with relatively normal counterpoint. Its as if two conflicting musics were sounding concurrently. What this ensures in expressive terms is that the presence of the most lyrical phraseology is always felt, no matter how hard the dissonances get. Gesualdo's application of his identification with Christ, however, stretched far beyond his music. He in fact kept as many as 13 hired servants who's sole task was to beat and or flog him everyday, part of an ongoing ritual of purgation for his guilt over earlier crimes. Like a van Gogh of music, Gesualdo paid for every brilliant, unforgettable note with miles of mental anguish of a kind few artists ever walk.

© All Music Guide

5.Animam meam dilectam

Most of the last years of Gesualdo's life were spent in a deepening domestic crisis, while his disturbed mental state rapidly worsened. Having brutally murdered his first wife in 1590, he married for a second time, to Leonora D'Este, in 1594, while at Ferrara. In just three years the second marriage had utterly deteriorated, due, according to all contemporary accounts, to his severe mistreatment of her and his frequent infidelities. It was the heat of scandal and scorn that drove him back to his hometown of Gesualdo sometime before 1597. Living with a wife who rightly hated him for his abuses, and tried unsuccessfully to file for divorce, he entered a period of personal darkness and mental decline that, ironically, led him to compose some of his greatest music. These were the last two books of madrigals and the great Tenebrae Responsorial cycles for Holy Week.

All of Gesualdo's Responsories make vivid use of contrasts of various kinds, drawing their technical resources, if not their character, from his madrigals. Animam meam, the sixth of nine responses for Food Griday, is even more madrigal-like than most, with sudden chatty outbursts directly juxtaposed with solemn passages of chordal homophony, and a frequently thin texture. In listening to his infamous harmonic language here, consider most of all how swiftly, and deftly the harmonic inflections change. Gesualdo, if highly eccentric was a virtuoso and careful master, always in complete control. Within a single phrase we're drawn through a splendid range of suggestive colorings so swiftly we begin to hear some of the harmonies like puns; single units invested with multiple meanings, each of which is perceptible. It's more than the ear, much less the heart, can hold.

© All Music Guide

6.Tradiderunt me

In his Responsories for Holy Week, Gesualdo draws on many of the techniques that distinguish his madrigals, the works for which he is most infamous. Whereas his use of chromaticism is usually cited as the distinguishing mark, it is not the way in which he most completely broke with his tradition. Polyphonic continuousness was the ideal for music of the day, and Gesualdo does his best to cram a diversity of textures and effects into a single work within a short space of time. Chromatic and diatonic, homophonic, polyphonic, sudden shifts in meter and mood, sudden breathless stops; constant changes like these derail the solemn Palestrinian flow, contrasting ideas pound into each other like an automobile accident pile-up. Marenzio's music can also be described this way, but Gesualdo better holds our imagination because of the tormented emotional world he is describing. Marenzio's music remains virtuosically fun and fluffy, Gesualdo speaks from the bottom of his anguished soul.

That is especially so in the Responsories, where Gesualdo seems to be identifying his own self-made torments with the sufferings of Christ. The kind of self-inflation that involves, if absurd in a personal sense, is the kind that leads to music of the most extraordinary intensity. Think of Beethoven. Tradiderunt me is seventh in a nine-piece cycle. Not the greatest of these amazing works by any means, it possesses all of their essential qualities and characteristics. But perhaps the beauty of the homophonic passages and overall denser texture distinguish it. It is at times almost purely chordal, achieving an absorbing organ-like giganticness through Gesualdo's careful, constant manipulations of every dimension of the music.

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Gesualdo, far from being a mere historical aberration or dabbler as he's been called, must be counted among a group of extraordinary late sixteenth century Italian composers who, in their search for means of text-expression in music, transfigured Renaissance music, bringing it to its stylistic apex, then pushed it beyond. A horribly melancholy, excessive man, his main musical forerunner was Luzzaschi, whose style, in the furnaces of Gesualdo's tormented imagination, became something both stranger and more fiercely expressive. The main, and most extreme, innovations are heard in his madrigals, where unprepared dissonance, a severe habit of chromaticism (which makes them like fruit-punch spiked methylated spirits), bold motivic gestures, and rhythmic modulation threaten to break the music apart, but he always manages to arrive at perfectly satisfying cadences. Generally more stylistically timid in his sacred motets, Gesualdo uses almost his entire arsenal of expressive madrigalistic effects in his cycle of responsories for Holy Week, in a slowed down, and more cautious manner. Works like Caligaverunt oculi mei are like spiritual madrigals, and among the most impressive works in Gesualdo's oeuvre. Its slowness is one of its virtues; instead of seeming eccentric or off-kilter, the music gradually envelops the listener in its severe, otherworldly majesty. Composers normally treated the passion texts with reverent detachment, but Gesualdo's settings are full of emotion. Whether this is because his mental illnesses had advanced so far that he was completely self-identifying with Christ, or simply that he felt an artistic compulsion to set these liturgically central texts as no one else had, the results are deeply impressive. The word "terrifying" is found in many descriptions of the Tenebrae. Considering that the music is made with human voices only, the terrible power achieved in these pieces is an extraordinary accomplishment.

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