Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Le Poème Harmonique sheds light on Tenebrae

In mid-March Le Poème Harmonique and its artistic director, Vincent Dumestre, will be performing Leçons de ténèbres (“lessons of darkness”) in concerts in Bernay and  New York.

Tenebrae is a musical setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah and is typically heard during Holy Week (the time Christ spent in Jerusalem leading up to his crucifixion). At a tenebrae service 15 lit candles are placed in a candelabra near the altar and 15 psalms are sung. As each psalm is completed, a candle is extinguished until the entire church is dark.

Le Poème Harmonique will be recreating this service, with music featuring François Couperin’s Leçons de ténèbres and works by Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers and Michel Lambert. Dumestre spoke with Ariama editor Craig Zeichner about this service.

Ariama: The Leçons de ténèbres of the French composers seems to be unique in the baroque.

Vincent Dumestre:  Yes, these works present many of the unique characteristics of the French baroque. The 17th and 18th centuries were a period of cultural development where many musical languages found their way into religious as well as secular music. Airs de cour, Tragédie lyrique, as well as Leçons de ténèbres are examples of particular French styles that are immediately recognizable. At the same time, these styles were always connected, sharing a common language and influencing each other.

Ariama: What are some of the musical characteristics of Couperin’s Leçons?

VD: Maybe the first thing to say is that they are particularly beautiful, elegant and deep at the same time. The Leçons de ténèbres are anchored in a variety of forms by Hebrew letters (Aleph, Beth, etc.) introducing the Lamentations of Jeremiah. The Hebrew letters are long, one-syllable melodic lines, while the Lamentations are set as a theatrical work with recitative and air. These contrasts illustrate the human passions in many different ways; each one is assigned a specific color and spirit. The complex harmonies and intertwined lines express the tensions and anguishes of the different Biblical episodes. Each set is concluded by "Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum "(“Jerusalem, return to thy God”), which, like the Hebrew letters, establishes a cycle that brings us back to a new set of lessons and gives us a sort of familiar feeling.

Ariama: How are Couperin’s Leçons different from settings by De Lalande, Charpentier or other French composers?

In the 18th century, Couperin's Leçons were praised and admired. The particular melodies, the links Couperin established between his keyboard music and the complex vocal set of the three Leçons, show us his maturity as a composer. At the same time, the works of each of the composers [in this program] show a continuous line of evolution in which each work has its own personality and at the same time shares the colors and spirit of the time in France. If we can immediately recognize Couperin’s Leçons from others, we can also very quickly distinguish a French composer from other contemporary musicians in Europe.

Ariama: Nivers, of course, wrote organ music, but I think many people are not familiar with his work as musicologist and chant scholar.

VD: Nivers was a prolific scholar, establishing different editions and embellishments for Gregorian chant, as well as being responsible for a specific French style called plainchant. Other contemporary French composers, like Henri du Mont, also wrote in this style, giving it great importance in the religious practice of the time. In writing the plainchant works, Nivers expressed a critical vision toward the early Gregorian melodies, sometimes simplifying them and sometimes adding typical French ornaments. These alterations finally created a style of its own that was alive in France for almost two centuries.

Ariama: You have programmed Lambert’s Miserere. Many know Lambert as a composer of airs de cour. What can you tell us about the Miserere?

VD: Lambert is indeed known as a courtly composer, nowadays as well as in his own time. We have many airs de cour publications by him, and even more that are lost, according to original sources. But concerning religious music, we have only one set of Miserere and one of Leçons de ténèbres. And again here we are, these particular Leçons that were so dear to French musicians. Lambert was also a renowned singer and singing teacher, which brings us to the parallel between Couperin's works and their vocal complexity and Lambert's Miserere.

Ariama: Le Poème Harmonique performs the program much like it would be in church, with the candles extinguished one by one.

VD: The candlelight and its particular atmosphere invite us all, musicians as well as audience, to a special moment. A simple movement of one hand, from the singers or from a gamba player, will not be seen the same way. And it goes the same for the music, which changes as the works go on and the darkness gains the church. The Leçons were a ritual, and today we also, in our public concerts, secular audience and musicians, are proposing a ritual. One candle after another, we plunge into this music, these words, and the tenebrae proposed by Couperin, Nivers and Lambert.

Editor's note: Dumestre and Le Poème Harmonique will record Couperin’s Leçons de ténèbres for the French Alpha label at the end of 2012.

Le Poème Harmonique perform Leçons de ténèbres at the church of St. Mary the Virgin in New York City on March 17th. The concert is presented by the Miller Theatre Early Music series.

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