FRANÇOIS COUPERIN (1668 – 1733), TOMÁS LUIS DE VICTORIA (circa 1548 – 1611), and THOMAS TALLIS (circa 1505 – 1585) – : Lamentations of Jeremiah – Tenebræ for Tuesday of Holy Week — Charles Humphries, countertenor and director; Red Letter Consort; Charles Lindsey, organ [St. John’s Church, Richmond, Virginia, USA; Tuesday, 4 April 2023]
It is impossible to know from precisely which origins and stimuli human music first developed. Perhaps it was a desire to mimick birdcalls and other sounds of nature that inspired song, or the failure of speech to adequately communicate certain emotions may have engendered the development of melody as an interpretive intermediary. Throughout its evolution, music has unquestionably assumed a consequential rôle in celebration and commemoration of humankind’s milestones, a rôle confirmed by the forced isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic to gain meaning from unifying diverse listeners in shared experiences of heightened expression. The effectiveness of music as a therapeutic medium for reconnecting with individuals with cognitive and memory deficiencies demonstrates that music engages listeners and performers in ways that are still only partially understood, somehow transcending even the most basic tenets of consciousness and cognizance.
At least since the Middle Ages, when the development of tablature and standard notation facilitated the preservation of music in printed form, music has been an integral component of commemorations of Christian events, not least those of Holy Week that honor Christ’s persecution, death, and resurrection. Encompassing virtually all genres, music for Holy Week constitutes a substantial segment of the Western choral canon, liturgical remembrances of Christ’s Passion and responses thereto having inspired composers for centuries. Imparted in works for both solo voice and choir, the spirit of awed reflection that permeates much music for Holy Week filled the space in which Red Letter Consort performed music that splendidly showcased the ensemble’s innate musicality, preparedness, and commitment to conveying the joy of singing even when voicing music of tremendous gravitas.
The setting for the 1775 Second Virginia Convention, the meeting of delegates convened in Richmond to explore paths to freedom from Britain during which Patrick Henry uttered his famed ‘Give me liberty, or give me death!’ address, St. John’s Church is an apt home, historically and acoustically, for performances by Red Letter Consort, founded and directed by renowned countertenor Charles Humphries. Serving in the Consort’s performance of music for Holy Week as both soloist and choir leader, Humphries curated a compelling sequence of settings of dolorous texts steeped in the humanistic pathos of Old Testament accounts of the sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Both accentuating the parallels in these texts with the sorrows of Christ’s Passion, as composers have done for centuries, and finding in words and music poignant bonds with present adversities, Humphries and Red Letter Consort liberated the music from specific liturgical contexts, fomenting in St. John’s a pervasive spirit of communal renewal.
Composed for celebration of Holy Week at Abbaye royale de Longchamp in 1714, François Couperin’s three Leçons de ténèbres pour mercredi saint enliven the biblical texts with masterfully-wrought aural colorations. The stylistic ingenuity found in Couperin’s keyboard music also permeates the Leçons de ténèbres, in which the musical language of the great French and Flemish masters of Renaissance choral music is distilled into vocal lines that are at once touchingly lucid and rich with detail. Beautifully accompanied by organist Charles Lindsey, Humphries’s singing of the first and second Leçons—those written for a single voice—exhibited unwavering focus on psychological nuances of the texts, each emotional transition, affectingly realized by Couperin, animated with sincerity and subtlety.
The intimacy of the performance’s setting heightened perception of the music’s challenges and appreciation of the commitment with which Humphries approached them. Notably, his articulations of repeated words and phrases were managed with great imagination, the word ‘Jerusalem’ uttered with contrasting ecstasy, pain, and resignation as the narrative progressed. The singer’s carefully-honed breath control revealed Couperin to be a precursor of Vincenzo Bellini as a composer of expansive, delicately-ornamented, bel canto-esque melodic lines. The technical assurance of Humphries’s vocalism was apparent in the infrequency of intonational fluctuations and stylistic inconsistencies, none of which detracted—or distracted—from the pensiveness and pulchritude of these traversals of the Leçons.
Offering their second concert to the Richmond public, the Red Letter Consort singers—sopranos Antonia Vassar and Kaitlyn Townsend, contralto Heather Jones, tenor Evan Heiter, and basses John Tyndall and Will Conn—began their portion of the performance with soaring accounts of three of the eighteen Tenebræ responsory motets published in Rome in 1585 by Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria. One of a handful of Renaissance masters whose life and career are extensively documented, Victoria benefited from the patronage of some of the most powerful figures of his age, including Spain’s King Philip II, whose support enabled Victoria to study and work in Rome. A contemporary of one of his native region’s most revered citizens, Saint Teresa of Ávila, Victoria was an ordained priest whose vocation dominated his compositional output. Unmistakably influenced by the music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, with whom he may have studied in the 1560s, Victoria’s Tenebræ responsories share with Couperin’s Leçons a profoundly personal atmosphere of rumination, invigorated in this performance by Red Letter Consort’s singing.
From the opening bars of ‘Amicus meus osculi me traddit signo,’ it was apparent that Humphries’s leadership yielded ensemble singing that honored the storied English traditions that shaped his musical constitution. Reminiscences of Coventry and Salisbury resounded in Red Letter Consort’s singing, but their delivery of Victoria’s music was distinguished by singular expressive intensity. The voices intertwined captivatingly in ‘Tamquam ad latronem,’ emphasizing the ingenuity of the composer’s part writing without distorting the piece’s meticulously-crafted polyphonic architecture. Foretokens of Passion music by Buxtehude and Bach emerged in the Consort’s phrasing of ‘Sepulto Domino, signatum est monumentum,’ in which the singers’ individual sounds were melded into a resilient thread by which the words were bound with evocative simplicity, the cathartic power of Victoria’s tone painting vividly projected to the listeners.
Unlike his Spanish colleague Victoria, the English composer Thomas Tallis is a towering figure in Renaissance music without a substantial biographical foundation. A defining presence in English liturgical composition throughout the reigns of the last four Tudor monarchs, Tallis gave England a body of work to rival the legacies of Continental composers, artfully tailoring his musical language first to the Catholic conservatism of Mary I and then to the Protestant progressivism of Elizabeth I without compromising the integrity of his work. Under Elizabeth’s aegis, Tallis and his pupil William Byrd were awarded exclusive rights to publish their works, an arrangement with few precedents that secured the survival of much of Tallis’s music. Whereas undisputed historical evidence creates a comprehensive portrait of Victoria, vestiges of Tallis’s character and experiences are primarily found in his music, in which a fascinating, sometimes melancholic, and often astonishingly modern voice is heard.
Red Letter Consort chose as the final selection for their Holy Week concert the first part of Tallis’s setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet. Dating from the 1560s, during Elizabeth I’s first decade on the throne, the work utilizes the same text employed in Couperin’s Leçons. Tallis’s manner of writing for the voices engenders sonic textures that are at once stark and lavish, each part requiring stamina, sensitivity, and security across a broad range. Guided by Humphries’s intuitive pacing, Red Letter Consort’s voices excelled at meeting Tallis’s demands, enunciating each line of Jeremiah’s elegiac text with stirring immediacy.
Despite the Consort’s relative newness, cooperation among the singers was faultless, the thoroughness of their preparation audible in each phrase of their singing. Fleeting moments of imperfect balance in the Victoria motets were largely absent from the Tallis. In this music, the Consort achieved an ethos that was appropriately solemn but movingly hopeful. Euphoniously limning the essence of Holy Week’s message of salvation through sacrifice with singing in which diligent rehearsal actuated expressive spontaneity, Humphries and Red Letter Consort reawakened in the hallowed space of St. John’s the quest for spiritual enlightenment that effected the church’s prominence in the annals of American history. Patrick Henry’s voice roused a revolution: the voices of Red Letter Consort roused music of centuries past with revolutionary eloquence.