Tenebrae factae sunt

TenebraeThe texts of the offices of Matins and Lauds during Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday have been the source of wonderful musical compositions, and I would like to offer several today.

In monasteries and cathedrals of the Middle Ages, Matins and Lauds were ordinarily sung in the early morning darkness, with Lauds concluding just at sunrise. However, during the three days before Easter these two offices were chanted the previous day, after Compline, and while they were sung, candles were extinguished one by one, as a symbol of the death of Jesus. The last candle was hidden, then a loud noise was made to recall the earthquake, and the candle was extinguished, leaving the church in darkness (in Latin, “tenebrae”).

Below is the traditional structure of Matins and Lauds for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of Holy Week. Matins consisted of three parts called “Nocturns,” each with three psalms, and three lessons, each followed by a “Great Responsory,” which is an elaborate version of the dialog between soloist and choir that we find in the smaller offices.” The first three lessons of Matins were taken from the book of Lamentations, the second set of three from St. Augustine, and the third set from St. Paul. The following gives the specific psalms and lessons for Holy Thursday:

Three psalms with antiphons (Psalms 69, 70, 71)
Three lessons (from Lamentations 1:1-14), each followed by a Great Responsory
Three psalms with antiphons (Psalms 72, 73, 74)
Three lessons (from St. Augustine), each followed by a Great Responsory
Three psalms with antiphons (Psalms 75, 76, 77)
Three lessons (from St. Paul, I Corinthians 11, 17-34), each followed by a Great Responsory
Five psalms (Psalms 50, 89, 35, Exodus 15:1-19, and Psalm 146)
Benedictus canticle with antiphon
special antiphon Christus factus est pro nobis

 Imagine, if you will, the typical arrangement of fifteen candles on a rack (called a “hearse”), with a candle extinguished after every psalm – nine in Matins and five in Lauds – with the last candle remaining for the ritual at the end of the service.

The Lamentations of Jeremiah have been the subject of many great compositions over the centuries. Listen to the setting by Peter Hallock, which is one of the musical examples in my book, Prayer as Night Falls.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) wrote several settings of the texts of responsories from Matins of Good Friday. Listen to his setting of the responsory to the third lesson – “Vinea mea electa:”

Vinea mea electa, ego te plantavi: quomodo conversa es in amaritudinem,
ut me crucifigeres et Barrabam dimitteres.
Sepivi te, et lapides elegi ex te, et ædificavi turrim.

O vineyard, my elect, I planted you: how could you change from sweet to bitter,
to have crucified me and released Barrabas?
I protected you; I took away the stones, and built you a tower.

I wish you a blessed Holy Week, and a Happy Easter!


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Return to the Lord your God

Lamentation 1For the last five Sundays of Lent, the Compline Choir has sung as an anthem one of the many settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah (in most bibles, the book of Lamentations comes right after the book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament). This has become a tradition over the years — the somber nature of the text and its theme of repentance lends itself well to the introspective season, with its culmination in Holy Week and Easter.

We also sing simpler versions of the other parts of Compline during Lent, which gives us more time to rehearse these rather challenging compositions, most of which are from the Renaissance.

The practice of singing from the book of Lamentations goes back to the Middle Ages, where they were the first three lessons (or readings) in the monastic office of Matins on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of Holy Week. Matins was chanted in the early morning hours, and immediately followed by the Office of Lauds, which was timed to be sung at sunrise. In the old form of Matins, there were nine lessons in all, and they were chanted by a solo cantor. The Lamentations have a special reciting formula that is more elaborate than the other lessons.

The picture above is from a book of Gregorian chant, and shows the beginning of the first lesson from Matins on Holy Thursday.  Notice how, after the introduction, each verse is preceded by a letter of the Hebrew alphabet (ALEPH, BETH, GIMEL, etc. in consecutive order). Each lesson ends with the refrain “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God:”


I excerpt here the “Jerusalem” section from each of the Lamentations that we have sung over the last five weeks, showing each composer’s unique approach to the same text. These excerpts are given in approximate chronological order by composer. There is also a link to the particular Compline service, if you want to hear the whole Lamentations setting for any given day:

1. Costanzo Festa (ca. 1485/90-1545), from our podcast of March 30, 2014. Heavy and thick, with antiphonal choirs, which comes as a contrast from the preceding verses of mostly solo duos and trios.

2. Jacques Arcadelt (ca. 1507-1568), from our podcast of April 6, 2014. Smooth, classic Renaissance counterpoint.

3. Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505-1585), from our podcast of March 16, 2014. My favorite Renaissance setting; note the solo high voice in a kind of dialog with the others, and the poignancy of major and minor sonorities.

4. Alphonso Ferrabosco the Younger (ca. 1575-1628), from our podcast of March 23, 2014. Clashes and chromaticism in this early 17th-c. setting.

5. Peter Hallock (b. 1924), from our podcast of March 9, 2014. Composition from the 1980s by the founder of the Compline Choir, Peter Hallock, with solo cello.

Next week is Holy Week, and I will write about another custom from the offices of Matins and Lauds during the three days before Easter – a custom that led to an evening service known as Tenebrae, or “darkness.”

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Tysk, holy light, and van Gogh

Tysk Church Stockholm

Tyska Kyrkan (German Church), Stockholm

Recently we sang  a serene hymn at Compline whose unusual name is simply “Tysk.” I first sang it at Compline shortly after I joined the choir in the 1960s, and although I love many hymns, this one is my  favorite. One of the reasons it appeals to me is that I have both Swedish and German heritage, and this hymn was sung in the “German church” (Tyska Kyrkan) in Stockholm during the eighteenth century. The tune, from a collection called Psalm und Choralbuch (1719), found its way into the Episcopal hymnals of 1940 and 1982, with words based on the original German hymn by the German Reformed mystic and pietist writer Gerhard Tersteegen (1697-1769).

I love the hymn’s stanza structure, with each in the classic AAB form – the “A” sections having lines of 6, 6, and 8 syllables, and the “B” section groups of 3, 3, 6, and 6 syllables.  It satisfyingly ends with the couplet of twelve syllables which it began. The lyrics too  are ravishing, movingly speaking of  adoration, quietness, surrender – ideal for prayer at the end of the day.

Listen now, and see what you think:

God Himself is with us; Let us all adore Him, And with awe appear before Him.
God is here within us; Souls, in silence fear Him, Humbly, fervently draw near Him.
Now His own who have known God, in worship lowly, Yield their spirits wholly.

Gladly, Lord, we offer Thine to be forever, Soul and life and each endeavor.
Help us to surrender Earth’s deceitful treasures, Pride of life and sinful pleasures:
Thou alone shall be known Lord of all our being, Life’s true way decreeing.

Thou pervades all things, Let Thy radiant beauty Light my eyes to see my duty.
As the tender flowers Eagerly unfold them, To the sunlight calmly hold them,
So let me, quietly, In Thy rays imbue me, Let Thy light shine through me.

Come, abide within me; Let my soul, like Mary, Be Thine earthly sanctuary.
Come, indwelling Spirit, With transfiguring splendor; Love and honor will I render.
Where I go here below, Let me bow before Thee, Know Thee and adore Thee.

I love the images, especially in the last two verses, of the flowers, eagerly unfolding themselves to God’s light, or letting ourselves, like Mary, be imbued by the Holy Spirit. The gospel for the same day we sang Tysk contained the familiar “You are the light of the world,” and this was echoed by the end of the hymn’s third verse: “Let Thy light shine through me.” As we consider often during the season of Epiphany, we are asked to receive the light, and then reflect it.

This last weekend I spent at St. Placid Priory near Olympia, Washington, where I attended Victoria Scarlett’s workshop  on Van Gogh’s Art and Spiritual Journey through the Priory Spirituality Center. My friend Victoria, of the Center for Sacred Art, spoke of van Gogh’s passion for light.  I felt the exact parallel between the hymn Tysk about light, and the brilliance and energy of the later paintings of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). The artist, through line and color, suffuses his paintings with divine light.

I’ll leave you with two images, both of flowers – one by van Gogh, and the other a picture I took this morning at St. Placid. “Let Thy rays imbue me .”

Vincent van Gogh, Irises, 1889

Vincent van Gogh, Irises, 1889

St. Placid Priory garden, February 16, 2014

St. Placid Priory garden, February 16, 2014



CandlemasIn the Christian calendar, February 2 is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, also known as Candlemas (or “Candle-Mass”). This year, it falls on a Sunday, and we’re going to observe it in a new and special way at Compline at  St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, and so I wanted to give you a preview.

Candlemas commemorates the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem, on the fortieth day after his birth, to fulfill the Jewish law requiring both ritual purification of the mother and presentation of a firstborn son. As recounted in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2: 22-38, the aged Simeon (who may have been the officiating priest) took Jesus in his arms and said what we now know as the Nunc Dimittis:

Lord, now you let your servant go in peace;
 your word has been fulfilled.
My own eyes have seen the salvation
 which you have prepared in the sight of every people:
A light to reveal you to the nations
 and the glory of your people Israel.

In addition to Simeon, an elderly woman named Anna prophesied about Jesus as the long-awaited messiah – in fact, she is the first to utter this prophecy.

The Christian celebration of the feast of the Presentation (earlier called Purification) can be traced back to the early fourth century. When the birth of Christ became set to December 25, the celebration forty days later on February 2 was almost exactly midway between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox, coinciding with the returning light and the beginning of preparation for spring planting. It became the time when candles were blessed for the new year, and carried by everyone in a great procession.

Compline was influenced by themes of light and salvation, and the Nunc Dimittis was made a key part of the Cathedral observance of the office. Jesus, as the “light of the nations,” gives us hope and encouragement as the day’s light dims and darkness takes over. And the themes of salvation and resurrection give us hope at the time when sleep presents us with a portent of our own death.

At St. Mark’s, people will receive candles on the way in to the Cathedral. The Compline Choir, Dean, and acolytes will gather in the chapel behind the altar, where the candles will be blessed, and the Nunc Dimittis sung with its antiphon Lumen ad revelationem gentium. Then a procession will be formed and go out into the cathedral, with the choir singing the chant Adorna thalamum, while acolytes will pass the light to everyone’s candles. The procession will stop at the altar, while it is incensed, and then the choir will process to its normal place singing the chant Obtulerunt pro eo Domino (“They offered for him unto the Lord a pair of turtledoves…”). From there, the Compline Service will take place as usual – except it will be entirely in the light of everyone’s candles.

Candles and incense and processions – oh my! Sounds like a beautiful way to celebrate this special midwinter day in the Emerald City.

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Golden Light for the New Year

St Mark's New YearHappy New Year from the underground!

Last Sunday was January 5, the last of the twelve days of the Christmas liturgical season. Our service of Compline fell on this night –  “Twelfth Night,” which was also the Eve of the Epiphany. Both of the themes of the birth of Christ and Divine Light were captured by one of the anthems we sang at Compline: Lux Aurumque. It was a most meditative moment, with the dark space of the cathedral punctuated by the Christmas lights, which you can see in the picture taken on New Year’s Eve. By January 5, the Labyrinth was no longer there, and the only lights were those on the trees and suspended on the walls — but it still gives one an impression of what it was like.

Lux Aurumque was written in 2009 by the composer Eric Whitacre, to words by the poet Edward Esch which were translated into Latin by Charles Anthony Silvestri. The use of Latin gives a kind of ancient, evocative quality to the words, and enhances the mystical effect of the music. Whitacre composed a version for mixed voices at first, but then did a version for men’s voices, which is what we sang.

Esch’s poem:

warm and heavy
as pure gold,
and the angels sing softly
to the newborn babe.

Silvestri’s words:

pura velut aurum,
et canunt angeli,
canunt moliter natum,
modo natum.

(Click to play)

If you want to learn more about Eric Whitacre and see the YouTube Virtual Choir singing the original version, click here.

I wish you many blessings in 2014.


I lift my eyes to the hills

Wenatchee MountainMany things have made me think about mountains this past month. My oldest daughter has been hiking in Nepal along the trail to Mt. Everest, but I’ll wait for some pictures to show before writing about that. Rather, I’m going to describe three other recent events relating to mountains.

It all started when the psalm we sang at Compline was Psalm 121 – “I lift up my eyes to the hills.” In fact, four of the five parts of the service that change from week to week were built around this text, and you can listen to any of these on the podcast from October 20, 2013; I’ll give time references so you can play any particular selection.

The orison, a musical “prayer” sung at the beginning of our service in Seattle (podcast: 1:11), was an Anglican chant setting by Henry Walford Davies (d. 1941), with the first line of each verse sung alternately (and very effectively) by a solo countertenor (alto) and solo tenor. The psalm (podcast: 4:44) was written in the 1980s for the  Compline Choir by its founder and director Peter Hallock (b. 1924). Both the psalm and the orison were settings of the psalm text from the Book of Common Prayer 1979:

1 I lift up my eyes to the hills; * from where is my help to come?
2 My help comes from the LORD, * the maker of heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved * and he who watches over you will not fall asleep.
4 Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel * shall neither slumber nor sleep;
5 The LORD himself watches over you; * the LORD is your shade at your right hand,
6 So that the sun shall not strike you by day, * nor the moon by night.
7 The LORD shall preserve you from all evil; * it is he who shall keep you safe.
8 The LORD shall watch over your going out and your coming in, * from this time forth for evermore.

The hymn (podcast: 9:22) was a paraphrase of the text, set to an 18th-century tune. The text of the anthem (podcast: 23:16) was from the first four verses of Psalm 121 in the Book of Common Prayer 1662, and set to music by Ernest Walker (1870 – 1949), in the first of his Two Anthems for Male Voices and Organ, Op. 16 (1899). The music is very lush, and post-Wagnerian; I am hoping that the Compline Choir will take a look at the other piece in the opus, which is a setting of Psalm 90 (“Lord, Thou hast been our refuge”). The organist for this broadcast was Kyle Kirchenman, who was a high school student when I wrote my blog in February 2011 about organ music after Compline. He’s now studying organ at the University of Washington in Seattle.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

The very next Saturday after this Compline service I was in the town of Wenatchee in Eastern Washington, having taken a vanload of immigration attorneys (including my wife) to give free legal advice to prospective citizens at a “Citizenship Day” event. I was driving around without any particular aim, and I was drawn to a distant mountain, which you can see in the photo above. The early morning fog was still clinging to the top, and I was immediately reminded of Psalm 121. But equally beautiful were the apple orchards near where I had stopped my car to take the picture, and they became the subject of a November 4 blog which I wrote for the Abbey of the Arts on being “A Monk in the World.”

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

Also in October, my wife and I attended a workshop at St. Placid Priory in Lacey, Washington, on “The Arts of Holy Russia.” The workshop was given by Victoria Scarlett and Joseph Anderson, whose organization is the Center for Sacred Art. It was there that I learned about a multi-cultural chant retreat weekend March 28-30, 2014 focusing on “Mountains as Sacred Places” (see more on their home page). The event will be at St. Andrew’s House Retreat Center on Hood Canal – I have been to several of these retreats  (read a previous blog I wrote about one of them), but this will be their first one going beyond the bounds of only Gregorian Chant. More details will be forthcoming in the new year - when I mention it again, it might be a good time to show my daughter’s Mt. Everest pictures.

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Jubilemus Omnes

full+moonLooking at the full moon recently reminded me of a blog entry that I started almost a year ago, and then left unpublished when I had to turn my attention elsewhere. It was about a piece, “Jubilemus omnes,” which the Compline Choir sang last year for the annual “O Antiphon” service sung by the Compline Choir and the St. Mark’s Cathedral Choir on the first Sunday of Advent. When I saw the bright October moon in the misty chill of the night the words of Thomas Merton’s translation  of the 11th-century poem came back to me: “the moon, the grace of night, and all things shining.”

The piece is the second of a pair of pieces written by Peter Hallock for the Compline Choir, accompanied by five cellos – a very rich and wonderful texture (the other piece is a setting of “The Dawning,” by the seventeenth-century metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan). I particularly love Hallock’s word-painting of such things as “showers of rain” (Latin pluvia) with the appropriate melancholy that is immediately understood by anyone who has lived in Seattle.

The following excerpt is from the Compline podcast for December 2, 2012. Enjoy this wonderful composition.

Jubilemus omnes una Deo nostro qui creavit Omnia.
Per quem condita sunt saecula;
Coelum quod plurima luce coruscat, et diversa sidera;

Sol mundi schema, noctium decus luna, cunctaque splendentia, 
Mare, solum, alta, plana et profunda flumina;
Aeris ampla spatia: quae discurrent aves, venti atque pluvia.
Haec simul cuncta tibi soli Deo Patri militant,
Nunc et in aevum, sine fine, per saecula:
Laus eorum tua Gloria:
Qui pro salute nostra Prolem unicam,
Pati in terra misisti sine culpa, sed ob nostra delicta.
Te, sancta Trinitas, precamur ut corpora nostra et corda regas et protegas et donas peccatorum veniam. Amen.(11th century, French-Roman Missal)
Let us sing together to our God, Who made all things,
And who created time.
Who made the sky, and filled it with light, and with the different stars   – 
Who made the sun, for the world’s finery: the moon, the grace of night, and all things shining:
The sea, the land, the highlands, and the level places, and the deep rivers:
The air, whose open distances birds, in their flights, and winds traverse, and showers of rain.
O all these things together, God, our Father, are marshaled under Thy command:
Now and forever, and never an end to their service, world without end!
Their praise is Thy glory.
Who, for our salvation,
Didst send to earth, to suffer, guiltless, for our sins, Thine only Son.
Thee, Holy Trinity, we pray to rule and guard our souls and bodies
And grant us pardon for our sins. Amen.
(translation by Thomas Merton, c1968 by the Abbey of Gethsemani Inc.)

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