Candlelight Concert: Leçons de ténèbres by Couperin

February began with performing some baroque music with my good colleagues from the ensemble Floridante. The concert was part of the annual MustonenFest, a long-standing international music festival that explores music from different genres and centuries. The program is put together by the legendary violinist and founder of the 50-year-old early music ensemble Hortus Musicus, Andres Mustonen, making each festival unique and truly personal.

“Leçons de ténèbres” by Couperin is one of the most wonderful pieces ever created. It has been captivating audiences for centuries. With or without candles, I am sure that this piece will remain memorable for its audience for many years.

Andres Mustonen
Ensemble Floridante after the concert

The Dark Hours

In the printed program leaflet, the musicologist Evelin Kõrvits wrote about the composition (the original text was in Estonian):

To symbolize the gradual abandonment of Christ by his disciples through distant traditions, François Couperin, nicknamed Le Grand, came from a famous musical family known as the French counterpart to the Bach family in Germany. His father, Charles Couperin, was the organist of St. Gervais Church in Paris, a position held by the Couperin family for nearly two centuries (1650-1826). François Couperin took over the position at the age of 18 and soon made a name for himself as an internationally recognized keyboard player and composer. He gained the favor of Louis XIV, who appointed him as the royal organist in 1693, and the royal harpsichordist in 1717. He was also the harpsichord teacher for the royal family. As such, his works are primarily for harpsichord (four published volumes contain about 230 pieces), but he also created chamber music and sacred works for the royal chapel of Louis XIV.

His peak achievement in church music is “Leçons de ténèbres” (Lessons of Darkness), which he composed between 1713 and 1717 for the nuns at Longchamp convent on the outskirts of Paris. The work was intended to be performed during the Holy Week when Catholic services sang or recited the lamentations of Jeremiah. The name Tenebrae (Latin for darkness) refers to the custom of the time in the Passion Week liturgy, where candles on a large candelabrum were gradually extinguished until complete darkness was achieved.

Couperin set the lamentations of Jeremiah for the Maundy Thursday service (three parts), but it is known that he intended to write music for the Great Friday and Holy Saturday liturgies as well, but nothing of the latter has survived. The first two parts of the work are scored for soprano and continuo, and the third for two sopranos and instruments, but the vocal parts can also be performed by other voice types, as the composer stated, with most people today who accompany singers knowing how to transpose.

The lamentations of Jeremiah, as written in the Old Testament, depict the prophet’s lament over the destruction of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 586 BC. In the original Hebrew text, each chapter began with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. As a counter to the calligraphic initial, Couperin set these pieces to music as richly ornamented vocalizes that introduce each subsequent chapter. The composer’s musical vision of Jeremiah’s painful lines is one of the most beautiful, masterful, and touching settings of this text, where he blended French and Italian styles – he believed that this fusion produced perfect music.

The House of the Brotherhood of Black Heads

The venue was a good choice for this repertoire. The Blackheads bought the house around 1517 and rebuilt it towards the end of the century by adding a bigger hall – nowadays called the White Hall. Initially, our concert was planned for the smaller hall, but it sold out, so we were moved to the big hall. That one ended up being sold out too. In addition to the audience in the hall, we had a remote audience because the concert was broadcast live.

The François Couperin cycle “Hours of Darkness” was simply amazing: the music of this work is so elegant and controlled, yet at the same time so beautiful and moving. Superlatives are the only words that can be used to describe the performance. Every concert featuring Maria Valdmaa is a feast for the listeners. Of course, it all starts with a natural beautiful voice, but she adds to it an unparalleled interpretation, a fine phrasing sensitivity, a crispness on long notes and embellishments – and a fantastic experience is guaranteed. Thanks to the compatibility of the voices and the seemingly shared breathing, the duet between Yena Choi and Maria Valdmaa sounded beautifully. Floridante has been delighting fans of early music for years with exciting programs and their playing has reached a level where as a listener, you no longer need to think about what they are doing, but can simply let yourself be carried away and enjoy.

Äli-Ann Klooren in the culture newspaper Sirp

Ensemble Floridante

Maria Valdmaa, Yena Choi (sopranos)
Saale Fischer (harpsichord)
Villu Vihermäe (viola da gamba)
Kristo Käo (theorbo)

The concert was broadcast live and recorded by Estonian National Broadcast. You can listen to it here:

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