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!


  1. #1 by jeff reynolds on April 18, 2014 - 5:11 pm

    In few times we’ve been on Anglican retreat at The Abbey of New Clairvaux, a Trappist Monastery of the strict observance in Northern California, I’ve noticed the Vat II Order of day is a much simplified version of your earlier Roman treatise above. The 3:30 A.M. Office is called Vigils. Incredibly, even at that hour, it is for them, and me, the richest office of the day. The power, richness, and depth of devotion is obvious, and supersedes time and place. At that hour, there is no room for anything worldly. Lauds comes at 6 A.M., year in and year out, and I’m amazed at how ‘authentic’ the sound is, with only monody, no harmony, which brings me directly to the universal appeal of chant, even when sung with below average singers. But that part does not matter. The text is king, and delivered in English by boys from the far east, middle east, europe, asia, and a few from the U.S.
    I’ve not been there for Passion week but they list a Holy Triduum schedule as:
    Holy Thursday Mass: 4:30 p.m.,
    Good Friday Celebration of the Lord’s Passion: 4 P.M.,
    Easter Sunday: Great Paschal Vigil: 2:45 A.M., Day Mass: 10:30 A.M.
    There is no sign that they pre-empt their regular seven daily offices.
    They are in the final stages of their complete re assembly of an 11th century limestone Spanish Monastery with arched columns and flying buttresses, purchased, dismantled, cataloged, and transported to San Francisco in 1931 by William Randolph Hearst . The stones languished around Golden Gate Park until they were bought by the Abbey for $1. I’ve sung a chant or two in there during reassembly and it is a mystical place to worship. When it is finished, our Compline Choir is hoping to take a field trip to New Clairvaux, just to do Compline in that hallowed place and hear those thousand year old bones rattle when we chant In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum.

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