Victoria’s Tenebrae Responsories and El Greco’s Crucifixion and a game of croquet – the essence of Good Friday

On Good Friday I always think about the deeply moving music composed by the Spanish Renaissance composer Tomas Luis Victoria (1548-1611) and remember the time when I used to sing either his Requiem Mass or his Tenebrae Responsories at Easter time.

From my mid teens I have sung tenor in various choirs and, as tenors are rarer than baritones and basses, I was always being asked to take part in special church services – none more often than the services associated with Holy Week.

I was even, in my University days, a paid up Cathedral Lay Clerk receiving a rather elegant if meagre cheque for my singing.

There is a natural drama about the way this week is built liturgically with the biblical account of Christ’s trial, crucifixion and resurrection dramatised in sequences throughout the week.

On Good Friday, some years ago, I sung in a memorable performance of Victoria’s Tenebrae Responsories – his settings of the responses for the gloomy Tenebrae service which is traditionally performed by the light of a few candles which are gradually extinguished until the church is left in darkness signifying the death of Christ before it is illuminated again with ringing bells and joyful music for the Easter Day service which marks the Resurrection.

I always preferred the gloomy stuff and Victoria’s music in particular.

It stays with me even though I haven’t sung it for a long time now and Good Friday remains for me a day when we should think about serious life and death kinds of things. Maybe I am a touch on the morbid side but I am not apologising for that.

Victoria was a contemporary of the great painter El Greco (1541-1614) who settled in Spain and worked there at the same time as his composer colleague – the music and the art have a similar austerity, simplicity, sensuality and directness that is inspiring whatever your religious or non-religious beliefs.

On that day when we performed Victoria’s Tenebrae, there was a morning rehearsal and then a gap before the evening service. I remember spending the time between these two appointments in a kind of reverential reverie as if I was really mourning the death of someone I had known.

Arriving for the service that evening I was shocked to hear that a number of my colleagues had spent the time out in the glorious Spring sunshine playing a rather riotous game of croquet and drinking glasses of Pimm’s and champagne. I could have been one of Oliver Cromwell’s strictest Puritan followers for a moment thinking that this was an insensitive act of flippancy. The music is pure Counter Reformation so maybe I was nearer to the Inquisition than to Cromwell for a moment but, I am pleased to say, I didn’t commit any act of intolerance. I just felt shocked. Now, of course, I think well done to them for having fun and why, Wolfgang, did you always get so overwhelmed by the music?

It is because the music is profoundly impressive especially in its intended setting and it speaks directly to our human hearts whatever our belief . These days I am better able to blend champagne and gloom but each year, on Good Friday, I do try to think seriously about life and death just enough to want to listen to this music and lose myself for a time in Victoria’s bleak and disturbing music:

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