Organist Gordon Mansell has been helping keep alive the music of the late Msgr. John Ronan. Michael Swan

The Tenebrae tradition

By 
  • March 12, 2020

The Church in Toronto has a Lenten treasure that ends not with a whimper but a bang.

After the last light in the church is extinguished during the Holy Week service of Tenebrae, while the congregation is left to reflect in darkness on the death of their Saviour, the choir will quietly take hold of hymnals, then in unison slap them hard against the back of the pew in front of them. This sudden explosion in the darkened Church is quite traditional, known as the strepitus or “great noise.”

That dramatic bang dates back to Tenebrae services of the high Middle Ages. But the Toronto bang comes in the context of a 20th-century musical setting of this Latin, Lenten celebration of Holy Week matins and lauds (evening prayers) by St. Michael’s Choir School founder Msgr. John Ronan.

Ronan had the misfortune of composing his masterpiece just before Pope Pius XII reformed Holy Week liturgies in 1955. The pope restored the Easter Vigil to Saturday night, regularized Good Friday services to the afternoon and evening hours and elevated the Lord’s Supper celebration on Holy Thursday. The reform left no room for Tenebrae (Latin for “darkness”), which never made it into the 1962 Roman Missal.

“We have to try to keep it alive,” said organist and faithful son of St. Michael’s Choir School  Gordon Mansell. “Because it’s an important legacy that the choir school has to give at a time of the year that this Tenebrae is appropriate.”

Whatever the Roman Missal says, the choir school and its alumni have continued presenting Ronan’s music for Holy Week year after year ever since Ronan himself was their choir director (he died in 1962).

“He (Ronan) had, certainly, a dramatic flare,” said Mansell. “And he didn’t shy away from any of it. He was very forward thinking, but he also had the intellect to know how to communicate it.”

Last year Mansell took his MOSAIC Canadian Vocal Ensemble to the Church of All Nations within the traditional site of the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem to sing Ronan’s Tenebrae. They were bolstered by the added forces of several St. Michael’s Choir School alumni and cellist Samuel Bisson. That performance may have been the first time Ronan’s Tenebrae was sung outside of Canada, Mansell said.

A Tenebrae service presents 14 psalms, extinguishing one candle on a triangular stand after each of the psalms. The final candle, representing Christ, is then hidden from view, leaving the church in darkness.

The bang of a book closing or feet stamping was in medieval times a signal to the congregation that they could leave. In the centuries since, it came to symbolize the earthquake that hit Jerusalem as Jesus breathed His last (Mat. 27:50-52).

“The other interpretation is that the devil has taken over in that period of time that Jesus is dead,” said Mansell.

In Ronan’s setting of Tenebrae the bang isn’t the last word. “Jerusalem Surge” (“Arise Jerusalem, put off your rejoicing garments, cover yourself in mourning clothes and ashes,” a Latin text based on the Lamentations of Jeremiah 2:18 and Jonah 3:6) comes after the bang, leading the church through music back into silence.

“It gives the opportunity for that brief period of time for people to reflect, to appreciate,” said Mansell. “When you think about this whole Tenebrae, it’s drama. It’s drama at the highest level.”

The Tenebrae tradition lives on in concert halls and on CDs with settings by renaissance composers Carlo Gesualdo and Marc-Antoine Charpentier. The best known bit of a Tenebrae setting is the “Miserere” by 17th-century composer Gregorio Allegri. But the Ronan Tenebrae is only found in Toronto.

“It is up to us to ensure that it is heard. It is performed,” said Mansell.

In an age of thumping hymns set over organ accompaniments as regular as marching tunes, or folk-inspired liturgical music, the Ronan Tenebrae is a reminder of a more serious kind of music for liturgy.

“I don’t see it being part of the mainstream practice of the faith — practice of liturgy,” Mansell said. “Even in Ronan’s time it wasn’t.”

But there will always be Catholics who are ready for Ronan’s “really well-crafted” music in service of prayer, according to Mansell.

“It’s high art. They think it’s stuffy,” he said. “It’s not here and now. I understand that. But I also understand that, let’s say young people, they’re looking for depth. They’re looking for something they can hang onto.”

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