Time to Bring Tenebrae Out of the Shadows

by Clare Bowskill

It is one of the oldest offices in the liturgy of the Catholic Church. It features some of the most beautiful music ever written. So why have so many of us never heard of it? Why am l completely in the dark about Tenebrae?

During Holy Week and the Sacred Triduum, the three days leading up to Easter, English Catholics have a wonderful selection of Masses and services happening in the traditional rite across the country. Looking at the list though, l realised that Tenebrae — sung from ‘Spy Wednesday’ in Holy Week — has completely passed me and l suspect many of my forty-something generation by. I had to find out what Tenebrae was and what I was missing out on.

So I consulted an expert. Charles Finch runs the group Cantores Missae which will be singing Tenebrae at St.Bede’s in London on Wednesday in Holy Week. He explained that Tenebrae (“darkness”) is made up of Matins and Lauds from the Divine Office. It takes place on the evenings before each of the days it is assigned to and takes its name from the gradual extinguishing of candles during the service.


These are made from unbleached wax — the same as we use for funerals – this represents mourning. The candles are lit on a ‘hearse’ which is a triangular candelabra which is hung on the sanctuary. They are snuffed out one-by-one after each of the psalms. At the end one candle is left alight representing the light of Christ. This candle is taken down and hidden, usually behind the altar.

The church is now left in total darkness, symbolizng the abandonment, the death and the burial of Christ. Right at the end of the service, the candle is restored to enable the people to see their way out, but it has been suggested that this also represents the death and the resurrection of Christ. For those attending the service, they know when to rise and leave when there is a loud noise made by a clapper or by the knocking of books against the pews.


Matins is divided into three parts or nocturns, each with three psalms and three lessons with their accompanying responsories. Lauds, which follows, has five psalms and then the Benedictus.

“It is the responsories that have inspired composers to write some of their finest religious music, none more so than Victoria whose incomparable settings of the texts for the second and third nocturns have not been surpassed and reach out to all and not just to the observant Catholic,” Charles said. “Who can fail to be drawn into the drama of the passion when listening to these sublime works?”

At St. Mary Moorfield’s in London, the Latin Mass Society under the musical direction of Matthew Schellhorn are holding all three of the Tenebrae Services beginning on the Wednesday evening in Holy Week. Also, for the first time the full set of responsories by the Renaissance composer Felice Anerio will be sung — twenty-seven pieces of music of breath-taking beauty.

Schellhorn writes, ‘The Office of Tenebrae is a time when we experience darkness within the Church, as we prepare for the sufferings of Good Friday and the glories of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. As if to complement this intensity, composers through the ages but particularly in the High Renaissance have consistently offered treasures of a supremely concentrated quality. It is extremely rare nowadays to hear this wonderful repertoire in a liturgical context.


“Because of the genius of Tomás Luis de Victoria (c. 1548 – 1611), his Responsories are the most performed and favoured but there are several glorious settings including those by Felice Anerio (c. 1560–1614) of which we sing all 27 over three evenings.’

Speaking to those who have experienced the awe of a Tenebrae service, l can be left in no doubt that this precious gem of the traditional rite is quite unique in its power to evoke such feelings of intensity and emotion. From the immortal words of St Paul’s letter to the Philippians ‘Christus factus est pro nobis obediens’ (“Christ became obedient for us unto death”) to the powerful text from the responsory O vos omnes, ‘if there be any sorrow like my sorrow’ it appears to perfectly evoke the betrayal, abandonment, and the agony of Christ’s crucifixion on the cross.

Tenebrae is an office rich in symbolism and the music, both the chant and polyphony, which at its best contributes powerfully and poignantly to the recounting of the drama of the final days of Our Lord, makes this an office all the more not to be missed.

Clare Bowskill is Director of Music at St. Mary Magdalen’s in Brighton and Publicity Officer for the Latin Mass SocietyIf you want to support the Latin Mass Society in promoting the traditional rites of the Catholic Church please LIKE their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/latinmassuk/

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