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The Roman Catholic liturgy incorporated the lamentations in the 8th century, and they were sung as lessons (leqons - lectio-nes) during the Matins for the last three days before Easter. At the time of Louis XIV it became customary to celebrate these Tenebres on the evening before the specific day, so that, for example, the "Premiere Leqon du Mercredy Sainct" actually meant the first Matins for Holy Thursday. The Matins contain three nocturnes ("vigilae", wakes); the psalm was always followed by an antiphon, and the lessons by a response. The Lamentations of Jeremiah were sung in the lessons of the first nocturne. At the end of the service all the lights in the church are extinguished, one by one, as a symbol of the fact than even Christ's disciples ungratefully abandoned their Master.
The Hebrew letters have been retained in the Latin translation of the Lamentations although they have lost their meaning here. Sung in extended melismas they are invested with a certain magical power. And after each lesson there is the repeated exhortation "Jerusalem, return to the Lord".
In a purely musical sense the "Lecons de Tenebres" can be considered as an independent genre in French Baroque music. Only those of Couperin are well-known today, with their sharp contrasts between, the Hebrew letters (extensive melismatic settings) and the verses (composed as an "ordinary" solo motet). Before Couperin this contrast did not exist: both the letters and the verses were nothing more than an extremely free adaptation of the Gregorian plainchant lamentation-tone in a highly melismatic style: much in the same style as the very popular contemporary "air de cour" was sung. In this way the deliberate monotony of the Gregorian "tonus lamentationis" was retained, but with a strongly heightened expressive power and a typically French refinement.
The Library of the Paris Conservatoire possesses two complete cycles with "Le-cons de Tenebres" by Michel Lambert in which the old Gregorian lamentation-tone and the new Air de Cour style encounter each other. We find certain characteristics in Lambert's Tenebrae that appear in Charpentier: the Gregorian Lamentation formula as melodic foundation, not only in the verses, but also in the Hebrew letters, is paraphrased in Air de Cour style, or, as it were, transformed into the (double" of an Air de Cour. The result of this is a to and fro alternation between the declamation and melisma. The beginning of the verse is syllabic and strongly declamatory; the Gregorian "initium" formula is clearly recognizable with its major third; the constantly repeated major third created a feeling of growing tension. And then an eruption follows: the melisma breaks free from the grip of the recitation. The Tenebrae of Charpentier form the highest as well as the terminal point of what we can call the "high melismatic style". Throughout his career Charpentier experimented with this most intimate of all the vocal genres.
After Charpentier there is an evolution towards a growing contrast between the letters (in melismatic style: the archaic element) and the verses (in motet style: the "new" element). Brossard, Couperin and Lalande had their "Leqons de Tenebres" printed in 1721, 1714 and 1730 respectively, which testifies to the vast popularity of the genre; but strictly speaking, their "Lecons de Tenebres" are no longer true lamentations.
The melismatic "Lemons de Tenebres" of Charpentier were written for nuns. The names of the sisters who sang them are known: Mere Ste Cecile sang the "dessus" part, Mere Camille the "bas-dessus", and Mere Desnots, a female counter-tenor - an extremely low alto. Charpentier had this to say about the scoring of the continuo part: "If a bass viol or violin can be added to the accompaniment of the organ or the harpsichord, all the better". In this recording these three instruments are employed as continuo instruments, together with the theorbo - the instrument on which Lambert accompanied his own "Leqons de Tenebres".
The soprano who takes the "dessus" part in these "Leqons de Tenebres" should possess a "voix douce, nette et claire", a "voix touchante" rather than a "voix brillante", a "voix petite" rather than a "voix grande", to use Bacilly's division of the human voice into vocal categories (because "small voices are more flexible and possess more agility for the orna-ments"). The "bas-dessus" part is sung in this recording by a male' alto. The French "haute-contre" (counter-tenor) was nothing more than a high tenor. "The Leqons de Tenebres must be sung very devoutly and very slowly": this rule of thumb by Andre-Jacques Villeneuve certainly applies to the "Leqons de Tenebres" by Charpentier, even while exercising care not to lose the inner tension. Charpentier notates the rhythm of his ornamentation with utmost precision and the singer is expected to follow this notation with equal strictness. It is of the greatest importance that the singer intending to sing these "Leqons de Tenebres" first acquaints himself with the singing of the Airs de Cour. The most important ornament in the Air de Cour is the port de voix which appears several hundred times in Charpentier, and which originated in the Italian "anticipazione della syllaba", the anticipation of a syllabe on the preceding note. This causes a disturbance of the regularity of the "beat" and achieved the effect of impatience. Another essential element, peculiar to this music, is the entire series of "cadences et tremblements" (the trembling of the voice as an expression of emotion, in its most diverse forms, ranging from the old Florentine "trillo" to the modern shake). These were indicated by Charpentier with a veritable arsenal of special signs which are found nowhere else.