François Couperin Three Tenebrae Lessons for Holy Wednesday


François Couperin
Three Tenebrae Lessons for Holy Wednesday

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

Digital/Digital/iTunes Plus

"... 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.

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.


Leçon 1, à une voix

Leçon 2, à une voix

Leçon 3, à deux voix


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