Entertainment Music for Easter: the “Lessons of Darkness”

Music for Easter: the “Lessons of Darkness”

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In the Old Testament, through his Lamentations, the prophet Jeremiah mourns the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Towards the VIIIe century, the Christian West registers this intense text in the office of lamentations, celebrated in the mornings of the three days preceding Easter. These readings punctuate the long expiatory journey which leads the Christian throughout Lent towards the light of Easter.

→ INVESTIGATION. Music, the sacred among us

It was in 1582 that the Council of Trent fixed the choice and organization of the texts and added the introductory formulas (“ Incipit Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae “: Here begins the lamentation of the prophet Jeremiah) and conclusive (” Jerusalem convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum “: Jerusalem, convert to the Lord your God).

The term “Darkness” refers to the powerfully theatrical use of light, with the gradual extinction of a candle at the end of each psalm. The last, who testifies to the hope in the Resurrection, is hidden behind the altar.

A funeral dramaturgy

This funereal dramaturgy is experiencing a real craze in the France of the Great Century, giving rise to highly symbolic ceremonies with a deep and intense emotional charge. We slightly modify the schedule to facilitate attendance at these musical and social events; they are very appreciated during Holy Week when, let’s remember, we are deprived of any show.

Abandoning the traditional polyphonic form of sacred music, the first solo voice lessons were composed in France around 1660 by Michel Lambert, in the purest style of court tunes. Following him, the musicians took pleasure in these exercises where sobriety quarreled with fervor (1). Sung in Latin, these sequences begin with the enunciation of the letter of the Hebrew alphabet which introduces the first verse. On these “exotic” tones, the most subtle and bewitching melisms can develop (sequence of several notes on the same syllable).

Charpentier and Couperin masterpieces

Marc-Antoine Charpentier composed 31 lessons from 1670 to 1692 but we only keep one complete cycle of Nine lessons intended for the nuns of the Abbaye-aux-Bois in 1680 and fragments of Nine responses from Holy Wednesday. Drawing on the plain-song melody set in 1587 by the Council of Trent, the composer developed flexible and virtuoso lines, enriched with numerous ornaments. High-pitched female voices are supported by a growing range of “lay” instruments. Contrapuntal writing, verses sung in a single voice, vocal exuberance of pages where intertwine up to three voices, harmonic audacity, unusual role entrusted to silences … Carpenter genius multiplies the “processes” of rhetoric in music.

In 1713, François Couperin in turn published Nine lessons of Darkness, one and two voices, intended for the clarisses of the Royal Abbey of Longchamp. These admirable pieces undoubtedly reach the height of the expression, by the choice of a stripped-down vocality, close to the arioso, combined with the dramatic use of dazzling tones.

Fifteen years later, another master of the French style, Michel-Richard de Lalande, will offer the ladies of the Assumption a cycle of Three lessons, with a Miserere : Chromatisms and long silences underline the gloomy atmosphere.

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