Four hundred years after it was written, the music of the Italian late Renaissance composer, Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613), still sounds shockingly avant-garde. Gesualdo’s madrigals and sacred works are filled with rule-bending harmonic innovations which, in the words of Aldous Huxley, add up to “a kind of musical no-man’s land.”
In the final years of his turbulent life, Gesualdo wrote a twenty-seven part setting of the Responsoria, liturgical texts for Catholic evening services for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Published in 1611, the Tenebrae Responsories is scored for six unaccompanied voices. The collection of madrigali spirituali constitutes a virtual Passion. At times, the music evokes images of flowing tears, the earthquake, and the anguish of Christ. Tenebrae, or “shadows,” refers to a ritual, performed during the services, in which candles were gradually extinguished until the church was shrouded in darkness.
Alex Ross writes,
“Tristis est anima mea,” the second responsory for Maundy Thursday, begins with desolate, drooping figures that conjure Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane (“My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death”). It then accelerates into frenzied motion, suggesting the fury of the mob and the flight of Jesus’ disciples. There follows music of profound loneliness, radiant chords punctured by aching dissonances, as Jesus says, “I will go to be sacrificed for you.” The movement from inner to outer landscape, from chromatic counterpoint to block harmonies, humanizes Jesus in a way that calls to mind Caravaggio’s New Testament paintings of the same period, with their collisions of dark and light. Even though Caravaggio renounced Mannerism and heralded the Baroque, the two artists seem close in spirit, not only because of their bloody life stories but also because of the primitive fervor of their religious iconography.
Tristis est anima mea:
The Responsories for Good Friday open with Omnes amici (“All my friends have forsaken me”). This haunting, unsettled music is filled with sudden, wrenching dissonances and chromaticism.
Alex Ross observes that
The responsories for Holy Saturday bring a gradual lightening of mood, even as the imagery stays focussed on the tomb. The language is cleaner, cooler, more ancient-sounding.
Here are three excerpts from this final section:
O vos omnes:
Listen to the complete work here.
- Gesualdo: Tenebrae Responsories, Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent Amazon
Featured Image: “The Taking of Christ” (c. 1602), Caravaggio