Office des Ténèbres de la Semaine Sainte


Tenebrae Service
François Couperin 
Three Tenebrae Lessons for Holy Wednesday

Gérard Lesne (Counter-tenor) 
Ensemble Il Seminario musicale 
Steve Dugardin
Josep Cabré 
Malcolm Bothwell
Bruno Cocset 
Pascal Monteilhet
Jean-Charles Ablitzer

"Diapason d’Or" de Diapason-Harmonie n°397 
"Un événement exceptionnel" de Télérama n°2295 
"Recommandé" par Classica n°19 
"Le disque du mois" de Répertoire n°63


Tenebrae Service

Ever since the 15th-century, composers have been intrigued by the "Lamentations of Jeremiah" used in the Catholic liturgy during the three most important days of Holy Week - for the Matins services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. The appeal of the Lamentations was enhanced when accompanied monody returned to fashion in the 17th-century, and contemporary composers set them according to new canons which naturally stimulated fresh interest in the traditional Gregorian melodic line. The first composer to set the Lamentations in the new style was Vincenzo Galilei, father of the great Florentine scientist; unfortunately, however, this initial version has not survived.

The public’s enthusiasm for the "Tenebrae Service" during which the "Lamentations" were sung - which was impatiently anticipated starting on the previous afternoon - is perfectly comprehensible in the context of the widespread religious ferment of the 17th-century, a period combining the pinnacle of baroque style with the religious exhortations of Monsieur Vincent, Saint-Jean Eudes, and Sainte-Jeanne de Chantal; and the foundation of numerous religious orders such as the Ursulines. We might also note, especially in France, the fascination exercised on the public mind by religious institutions for women that were cloistered following the religious reforms early in the century. These institutions were also the only ones authorized to dispense general education to young girls. Many a bourgeois and noble family could boast one or more daughters attending convents for "finishing", as they called it, and thus maintained active links with these institutions. The power of religious feeling characteristic of the time should also not be underestimated; the church was omnipresent, its force felt with special strength during the week when its liturgy dwelt on the sacrament of the Eucharist and the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. Numerous convents and parish churches made unusual efforts at this season to underscore through music the solemnity of the liturgy for the three holy days. This resulted, directly or indirectly, in commissions for composers.

In France, Michel Lambert, Lully’s future father-in-law, was the first to publish monodic Lamentations, in 1662. Charpentier later composed several versions for different musical formations; then came Delalande, Brossard, Bernier and, finally, Couperin, whose three Lamentations for the Wednesday Tenebrae were published undated in Paris between 1713 and 1717. It is probable that Couperin set the complete three-day cycle, but the Lamentations for Thursday and Friday evening, which were not published, have been lost.
The Prophet Jeremiah’s poem commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem is based on an acrostic using the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The Latin, or Vulgate translation of the Bible, traditionally attributed to Saint-Jérôme, retains the Hebrew letters in the Latin text, thus affording it a slightly esoteric quality that enhances its intrinsic beauty. The Gregorian plain chant applied to the Lamentations makes a very clear distinction between the Hebrew letters, which are embellished with long melismas; and the verses of the poem, treated more syllabically and thus closer to psalmody. Lambert scrupulously preserved the Gregorian music in the melodic line of his Lamentations, embellishing it with figures from the French vocal tradition. Couperin follows the same general plan, but allows himself more freedom for a personal interpretation of the text, setting the third Lamentation, as Charpentier and Delalande had done before him, for two voices.

However, the congregations that crowded into churches and convents to hear these extremely beautiful works were not concert-goers, but worshipers. The Lamentations were never heard apart from the three nocturnes making up the Matins service. Each of the nocturnes begins with three psalms accompanied by their respective antiphons, and ends with three Lessons, each followed by a response - a fairly brief meditation, always constructed in the same ABCB form. Since the "Tenebrae Service" itself was quite long, the addition of contemporary music was limited so as not extend it unduly. This explains why we never find a complete and coherent whole containing the three Lamentations and the three corresponding responses; some composers even limited themselves to setting only two out of three Lamentations to music - Alessandro Scarlatti, for example. Contemporary religious services alternated Gregorian and "modern" music, with the contrast between the two styles undoubtedly contributing considerable charm to these distinctive liturgies. The nocturne antiphon and responses have been recovered from a Parisian breviary dating from the time of Couperin, whose headings differ from those in contemporary Roman breviaries. The psalm that here precedes the first Lamentation is the third psalm of the first nocturne, sung by alternating traditional psalmody with a 17th-century "faux-bourdon" figure that was to enjoy great longevity. We have respected the indications given in the Parisian breviary, with each of Couperin’s Lessons followed by the corresponding response, and the kind of "faux-bourdon" often traditionally used for the antiphons and the final reprise of the response in order to provide a transition into the beginning of the following Lesson. We have chosen to conclude with the verse "Christus factus est", used by the Holy Week liturgy as a sort of refrain throughout the three holy days.

The "Tenebrae Service" liturgy called for "setting the scene" inside the churches, as described in an "Instruction on the Tenebrae and Holy Week Ceremonies", contained in the introduction to a "Holy Week Service" published in Paris in 1731 : "For the Tenebrae Service, it is customary to place a candelabra holding fifteen burning candles in front of the altar, and to extinguish them one by one, at the conclusion of each psalm...". The congregation thus heard the final prayers in almost total darkness. Everything conspired to create a particularly suggestive setting, accentuating the emotions aroused by the splendid music composers wrote for these very special occasions.

Couperin composed these Lamentations for the religious Ladies of Longchamp Abbey, one of the great abbeys in the Paris region. However, the fact he also published them indicates they may have been sung in other settings and in a musical context very close to that recreated here.

Jean Lionnet
English adaptation by Louise Guiney

"... A few years ago I composed three Lessons for Good Friday, at the request of the religious Ladies of L., where they sung with success. This determined me, a few months ago, to compose lessons for Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday. For the Moment, however, I am presenting only the three for the first-mentioned day, since I do not have sufficient time between now and Lent to have the six others printed. The first and second (lessons) of each day will always be for one voice and the third for two voices; consequently two voices will be enough for the performance; although the voice part is notated on the soprano clef, any other kinds of voices will be able to sing them, and particularly since most persons who play accompaniments today know how to transpose. If the public is pleased with these, I shall present the six others, three at a time. If one can combine with the organ or harpsichord accompaniment a bass part on the viola or cello, that would be effective..."

François Couperin 
Organist-composer of the Chapelle Royale

The Tenebrae Lessons for Holy Wednesday

The Tenebrae Lessons constitute one of the highlights of the traditional Catholic liturgy as practiced until recent years. During three nights of Holy Week - known as the Sacrum Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday) - for each of the three Nocturnes making up the Matins service, this liturgy calls for three psalms to be sung, with their three Antiphons; and three Lessons followed by their Responses. For the first Nocturne, the Lessons are based on the "Lamentations of Jeremiah".

Coincidentally one of the most beautiful poems in the Old Testament - a vast elegy on the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem (which allows us to date the text at precisely 586 B.C.), and the sins of Israel. The poem is an acrostic : each verse begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which also serves as a reference. This is an ancient prosodic and mnemonic device, interesting here mainly because it was retained in the Latin translation of the Bible, throughout the Middle Ages, and down to our own time. Aleph, Beth, Ghimel, etc. are still sung before each Latin verse.
It was in 17th-century Paris, curiously, that the Tenebrae Service became a center-piece of the devotional. Holy Week rituals were observed in Paris then as they are in Spain today - a fashionable trend that was to benefit music. The beautiful singing of religious Ladies attracted large congregations, eventually professional opera singers took part, rotating between convent and theater - to the dismay of the more conservative worshipers.

Couperin’s duties did not include composing vocal music for the Chapel, although he did leave us a series of small, intimate motets. These were almost never for full choir, but most often for one or two voices, sometimes three. The soprano voice predominates (his cousin Louise was a singer and performed at the Court). Some verses were published in the early 18th-century, but most are in manuscript form only. They include passages of exquisite delicacy; brilliant virtuoso displays, such as the Motet for Easter Day; and notably, introspective Elevations filled with tender emotion in a "Fénelonesque" vein. This reflective style, well-suited to Couperin’s sensibility, finds its consummation in the Tenebrae Lessons we have preserved (out of nine he wrote). Here is music ranking as a masterpiece both of Couperin’s oeuvre, and of his period.

Couperin here displays his prolific musicality and his sensitivity to the rhythm and intonation of the Latin words, endowing the language with a sovereign freedom allowing the composer to express himself profoundly without superfluous effects. The musical phrasing is structurally ravishing in its effortless expansion and contraction, rise and fall. But Couperin’s greatest strength here is his emotional understanding. He empathized fully with the text of Jeremiah’s psalm, bringing his own sweet, almost suave melancholy to the prophet’s plaint. He did not temper the lamento, as has been thought, but interiorized it and made it his own. With no exaggerated effects, using a single soprano or a double voice-line accompanied by organ and viola da gamba, here is some most poignant and moving music ever to come from the pen of this contemplative poet-composer.

Philippe Beaussant
de l’Académie Française
English adaptation by Louise Guiney

Gérard Lesne


Gérard Lesne is an established specialist in medieval and baroque vocal music. He made his debut in 1979 with the Clemencic Consort of Vienna, and has since frequently performed and recorded with this group.

Since 1981, Gérard Lesne has appeared and recorded regularly with major French medieval, renaissance, and baroque groups, Ensemble Organum, Ensemble Clément Janequin, La Grande Ecurie et La Chambre du Roy, La Chapelle Royale, Les Arts Florissants, and Hesperion XX.

In 1985, Gérard Lesne founded the Il Seminario musicale Ensemble, a vocal and instrumental group specialized in the 17th and 18th-century Italian repertoire.

Among Gérard Lesne's numerous recordings is Harmonic Classics Sacred Music for Contralto, Strings and Continuo (Stabat Mater, Nisi Dominus, etc.) by Antonio Vivaldi.

This album was extremely well-receveid by the critics, and won the Académie Charles Cros Grand Prix.

Il Seminario musicale

Gérard Lesne founded the Il Seminario musicale Ensemble in 1985. Since 1990, the Ensemble has been in residence at the Royaumont Foundation, where it attracts vocalists and instrumentalists who share Lesne's enthusiasm for the 17th and 18th century Italian repertoire.

The musicians perform on old instruments and strive to reproduce as faithfully as possible the lilt and narrative line characteristic of the baroque style as expressed in works by composers such as Monteverdi, Cavalli, Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Caldara, Pergolèse, and the others. The size of the ensemble is variable depending on the repertoire. Based on a rich and varied continuo section (theorbo, cello, bassoon, double bass, organ and harpsichord) supporting one or more soloists, it can be expanded with the addition of a string quartet to make a small chamber orchestra suitable for performing chamber operas. Responsibility for the Ensemble's musical direction is shared by the instrumentalists and vocalists.

for this album the members of the Il Seminario musicale Ensemble are :

Steve Dugardin

Steve Dugardin, born in Ostende on 9 August 1964, began is musical training when he was 15 years old. He won First Prize for solfège at the Ghent Royal Conservatory and First Prize for Voice at Antwerp Royal Conservatory. Dugardin has made frequent public appearances with distinguished figures such as Sigiswald Kuijken, Ton Koopman, Gustav Leonhardt, and Jos van Immerseel. He currently performs with the Collegium Vocale and the Chapelle Royale under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe.

Josep Cabré


Josep Cabré was born in Barcelona, where he received his early musical training. From 1978 to 1982 he studied with Christopher Schmidt (theory) and Kurt Widmer (voice) at he Schola Cantorum in Basel, in Paris he was taught by Lise Arseguet. Cabré's repertoire extends from the Middle Ages through the 20th-Century, and he has made solo appearances with the Organum and Il Seminario musicale Ensembles in France, Daedalus in Bologna, La Capella Reial in Catalunya, Hesperion XX, and the Orquestra de Cambra del Teatro Lliure in Barcelona.

Malcolm Bothwell

London-born Malcolm Bothwell studied from 1978 to 1965 under Ian Bent at the University of Nottingham, and David Fallows at the University of Manchester, where he prepared a master's degree thesis on the works of Guillaume de Machaut. He also studied the viola da gamba with Charles Medlam, director of the London Baroque Ensemble. Based in Paris since 1988, Malcolm Bothwell is highly versatile. In 1989 he composed and performed the music for the play "Metamorphosis", based on Kafka's novel with Roman Polanski. Bothwell is a soloist with the Organum and Il Seminario musicale Ensembles, and Medieval musicology research assistant to the Organum Ensemble's director Marcel Pérès.

Bruno Cocset
Bass violin

Born in 1963, he has degrees from Tours and Lyon conservatoires for cello and chamber music. By unanimous vote, he was awarded the Premier Prix for baroque cello in William Christie's and Christophe Coin's classes in Paris. He follows as well master classes with Anner Bylsma and Jaap Schroeder. Bruno Cocset is a member of the Arts Florissants, the Musiciens du Louvre, and the Mosaïque and Fitzwilliam Ensembles.

Pascal Monteilhet

In 1982, he completes his lute studies in Basel Schola Cantorum with such teachers as Eugen M. Dombois and Hopkinson Smith, and he won the Menuhin foundation award Pascal Monteilhet has performed under William Christie, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Philippe Herreweghe, Jean-Claude Malgoire, Marc Minkowski, and Jordi Savall. His services are also regularly in demand for chamber music conducted by such luminaries of the younger generation as Fabio Biondi, Christophe Coin, and Christophe Rousset.

Jean-Charles Ablitzer
Positive organ

Born in 1946 and attracted early to the organ, Jean-Charles Ablitzer was initially self-taught. He then won admission to the Strasbourg Conservatory, where he studied under Pierre Vidal. In 1971 he was offered the organ loft in Belfort's Saint Christopher Cathedral, home of the great Valtrin-Callinet organ restored by Kurt Schwenkedel of Strasbourg. The same year Ablitzer was also named professor of organ at the Belfort Conservatory. Ablitzer's scholarship and knowledge of baroque instruments has made him a highly disciplined stylist. His performance methods reflect the principles described in the literature, his own insights into register, articulation, and phrasing, and his studies of ancient organs (construction, keyboard and pedalboard types). A devotee of chamber music, Ablitzer has numerous public performances and recordings of baroque ensemble music to his credit. He has often recorded as solo organist on the Harmonic Classics label, notably for the complete organ works of François Couperin, Johannes Brahms, and Diderik Buxtehude, recordings that have won generous praise from the critics.


Antienne, Psaume

Première Leçon à une voix
Premier Répons

Deuxième Leçon à une voix
Deuxième Répons

Troisième Leçon à deux voix
Troisième Répons



"Diapason d’Orde Diapason-Harmonie n°397 :

Trois considérations préliminaires. Tout d'abord la qualité (habituelle chez l'éditeur) du livret d'accompagnement, qualité esthétique (placée sous la lumière ténue de Georges de La Tour et sa Madeleine à la veilleuse) et musicologique, grâce aux textes de Jean Lionnet et Philippe Beaussant. L'attribution, ensuite, à des voix masculines - des hautes-contre à la française - de pages conçues pour les dames religieuses de l'abbaye de Longchamp; mais Couperin précisa bien par écrit que, "quoique le chant en soit noté sur la clef de dessus, toutes autres espèces de voix pourront les chanter" (à condition évidemment de transposer). Enfin ce disque participe à son tour de la vogue des reconstitutions liturgiques avec adjonction du plain-chant; en l'occurrence, ont été retenus un répons par Leçon (Couperin n'en avait pas composé), un psaume d'introduction ("In te, Domine, speravi") et un verset final ("Christus factus est"), tous pioches dans un bréviaire de l'époque.
Une fois de plus Gérard Lesne est le grand artisan de la réussite de ces Leçons de ténèbres comme récemment de celles de Charpentier. Certes sa voix désormais s'embrume dans le grave et sa diction peut s'empâter dans le médium. Mais quelle beauté dans les mélismes qui parsèment l'œuvre, dans les ornements frémissants, dans la liquidité lumineuse des aigus ! S'évitant tout maniérisme incongru, Lesne vise au cœur des textes, ne négligeant ni la théâtralité doloriste ni la spiritualité mélancolique et délicatement ombrée de cette musique gagnée par une lumière façon La Tour (d'où la pertinence de l'illustration de la pochette). Et, techniquement, on admirera la manière qu'a le chanteur français d'alterner dolce et forte dans les passages recitando (notamment dans la 2e Leçon).
La réussite magnifique de ce disque est confortée par la participation dans la 3e Leçon de Steve Dugardin dont la voix se marie à merveille avec celle de Lesne, par le soutien impeccable des continuistes et par la splendeur du grégorien dirigé, il est vrai, par Josep Cabré, habituel complice de Marcel Pérès. Voici enfin une référence pour les trois (sur neuf) Leçons de ténèbres de Couperin qui nous sont parvenues et dont les bons enregistrements ne manquaient pas, sans jamais toutefois atteindre à cette plénitude généreuse. - Jean-Luc Macia
Technique : 8,5/10. Belle perspective sonore. Image cohérente et équilibrée

"Un événement exceptionnelde Télérama n°2295 :

On l'a compris, c'est notre 
haute-contre national qui donne poids à ces enregistrements et les rend si infiniment précieux. Gérard Lesne est vocalement au faîte de sa gloire, et son art ne cesse de croître et d'embellir. Ces Leçons de ténèbres de François Couperin ne sont pas des nouveautés au disque, mais les avait-on déjà entendues ainsi "caressées" par cette voix à la fois venue d'ailleurs et si sensuellement d'ici?
Pour mieux incarner le ton contemplatif de Couperin, Gérard Lesne rentre, si j'ose dire, en lui-même et, c'est ce qui est émouvant et fort, sa voix... le suit. Cette sublime intériorisation est un acte de courage, car, on le sait pour l'avoir déjà entendu, il est plus aisé de se laisser aller à "s'ouvrir" au drame et à se donner en spectacle. Dans sa solitude volontaire et douce, l'imploration de Lesne plane au-dessus des Hommes et les fait frissonner.

Aux côtés du baryton Josep Cabré, de la basse Malcolm Bothwell, se distingue un nouveau venu, Steve Dugardin, un Flamand de 30 ans, haute-contre de son état, et dont le timbre est terriblement prenant. Quand il unit sa voix à celle de Lesne, on ne vous dit pas... Ce Couperin exceptionnel est "soutenu" par un "petit éditeur" comme, hélas, on n'en fait plus et qui soigne ses productions jusqu'au moindre détail - admirez textes et iconographie; admirez et jouissez? du travail bien fait. - Paul Meunier
Technique : TTTT.

"Le disque du moisde Répertoire n°63 :

Encore le réfectoire de l'Abbaye de Fontevrault à la fabuleuse acoustique, mais ici Dominique Matthieu a poussé la qualité de la prise de son au sublime. La disposition des chanteurs, des musiciens et des micros atteint une rare perfection. Un véritable chef-d'œuvre qui devrait devenir une référence dans ce style d'enregistrement.

"Recommandé" par Classica n°19
Lauréat du "Palmarès 93" du Monde, Arts-Spectacles Spécial Disques 
Selected by Le Monde de la Musique n°176 dans "Les Essentiels du Chant Baroque" 
Selected by le Guide Gourmand des Musiques à l'Ancienne 
Selected by "Les Indispensables" du Guide du disque compact Fayard 
Selected by "La Discothèque Classique en 500 CD" de Classica/RTL (édition 2000)
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