Leçons de ténèbres

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Leçons de ténèbres, literally translated lessons of darkness, is a genre of French baroque music which developed from the polyphonic lamentations settings for the tenebrae service of Renaissance composers such as Sermisy, Gesualdo, Tallis, and Tomás Luis de Victoria into virtuoso solo chamber music.

de or des Ténèbres?

In the original French sources Leçons de ténèbres is more common; The spelling Leçons des ténèbres is increasingly common in later resources, however modern sources still use de; as seen in Sébastien Gaudelus Les offices de Ténèbres en France, 1650–1790 (2005). Capitalisation of ténèbres varies.

Liturgical function

The tenebrae service uses the text of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, originally deploring the Siege of Jerusalem (587 BC) and subsequent desolation of the city, but applied allegorically to the three days of mourning for Christ between his crucifixion and resurrection.

However the context of the French Leçons de ténèbres was often private performance. Delalande's 15-year-old daughter sang for Louis XIV first in his living rooms and then in chapel, becoming the praise of all Paris. Philidor's catalogue indicates that Delalande's three surviving virtuoso solo Leçons de ténèbres were composed for such occasions.[1]

A complete set of Leçons de ténèbres for the full three days of Holy Week would have included nine lessons, with each of these leçons requiring the setting of specific texts from Lamentations, although the conventions of exactly which texts to set varied slightly from the Renaissance to the Baroque, and by local custom. The following represents the typical French baroque schema set by Marc-Antoine Charpentier:[2]

Holy Wednesday
  • Première leçon pour le mercredi Saint – 1:1–5
  • Deuxième leçon pour le mercredi Saint – 1:6–9
  • Troisième leçon pour le mercredi Saint – 1:10–14
Holy Thursday
  • Première leçon pour le jeudi Saint – 2:8–11
  • Deuxième leçon pour le jeudi Saint – 2:12–15
  • Troisième leçon pour le jeudi Saint – 3:1–9
Good Friday
  • Première leçon pour le vendredi Saint – 3:22–30
  • Deuxième leçon pour le vendredi Saint – 4:1–6
  • Troisième leçon pour le vendredi Saint – 5:1–11

However in practice composers rarely supplied a complete set of all 9 settings. An notable exception being Charpentier who authored a complete set Les Neuf Leçons de ténèbres (H. 96–110) and duplicated all the settings several times over.[3]

In addition the services required antiphons and supplementary motets – 9 for each day, 27 in total. Charpentier again produced extensively in this genre, such as his Les neuf répons du mercredi saint (H. 111–119, 120–125, 135–137). As with the lessons the French répons are stylistically differentiated from the Renaissance responsories for Holy Week of Victoria and Gesualdo.

Musical style

The characteristic style of the Leçons de ténèbres is defined by the trend to soloist virtuoso performance, for one or two vocalists with basso continuo, and introspective and melismatic music – specifically in the melismas on the Hebrew letters introducing each Latin verse.

By way of contrast the larger scale choral and orchestral lamentations of provincial composer Jean Gilles stand outside the mainly Parisian genre, and more in line with the lamentations of Central European baroque composers such as Zelenka and Heinichen.


Of the settings by far the best known are the Leçons de ténèbres of Couperin, however Couperin's were not the first nor was he the most prolific composer in the genre:[4]

Later composers who in part followed the French chamber style in their settings of lamentations include:

Selected recordings


  1. Chapter 5. Leçons des ténèbres in Lionel Sawkins, John Nightingale, Michel-Richard de Lalande (1657–1726) British Academy
  2. per Jacobs and Lesne recordings, C. Cessac Charpentier appendix, but see also Emfaq, Lamentations for comparisons with other composers
  3. Catherine Cessac, Reinhard G. Pauly Marc-Antoine Charpentier 1995
  4. Sébastien Gaudelus Les offices de Ténèbres en France, 1650–1790 – 2005
  5. The Harvard biographical dictionary of music Don Michael Randel