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  “… A few years ago I composed three lessons for Good Friday, at the request of the religious Ladies of L. [Longchamp], where they were sung with success. This […]

“... A few years ago I composed three lessons for Good Friday, at the request of the religious Ladies of L. [Longchamp], where they were sung with success. This determined me, a few months ago, to compose lessons for Holy Wednesday and Maundy Thursday. For the moment, however, I am presenting only the three for the first-mentioned day, since I do not have sufficient time between now and Lent to have the six others printed. The first and second [lessons] for each day will always be for one voice and the third for two voices; consequently two voices will be enough for the performance; although the voice part is notated on the soprano clef, any other kind of voices will be able to sing them, and particularly since most persons who play accompaniments today know how to transpose. If the public is pleased with these, I shall present the six others, three at a time. If one can combine with the organ or harpsichord accompaniment a part on the bass viol or the bass violin, that would be effective...” (François Couperin, Organist-composer of the Chapelle Royale).

The Tenebrae lessons constitute one of the highlights of the traditional Catholic liturgy as practised until recent years. During three nights of the Holy Week -known as the Sacrum Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday)- for each of the three Nocturnes making up the Matins service, this liturgy calls for three psalms to be sung, with their three Antiphons; and three lessons followed by their Responses. For the first Nocturne, the lessons are based on the Lamentations of Jeremiah.

Coincidentally one of the most beautiful poems in the Old Testament, is a vast elegy on the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem (which allows us to date the text at around 586 B.C.) and the sins of Israel. The poem is an acrostic: each verse begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which also serves as a reference. This is an ancient prosodic and mnemonic device, interesting here mainly because it was retained in the Latin translation of the Bible, throughout the Middle Ages, and down to our time. Aleph, Beth, Ghimel, etc., are still to be sung before each Latin verse.

It was in the 17th-century Paris, curiously, that the Tenebrae Service became a center-piece of the devotional. Holy Week rituals were observed in Paris then as they are in Spain today - a fashionable trend that was to benefit music. The beautiful singing of the religious Ladies attracted large congregations; eventually professional opera singers took part, rotating between convent and theatre - to the dismay of the more conservative worshipers.

For this recording, the antiphons and responses have been recovered from a Parisian breviary dating from the time of Couperin, whose order differs from contemporary Roman breviaries. The psalm that here precedes the first Lamentation is the third psalm of the first nocturne, sung by alternating traditional psalmody with a 17th-century fauxbourdon figure that was to enjoy great longevity. We have respected the indications given in the Parisian breviary, with each of Couperin’s lessons followed by the corresponding response, and the kind of fauxbourdon often traditionally used for the antiphons and the final reprise of the response in order to provide a transition into the beginning of the following lesson. We have chosen to conclude with the verse Christus factus est, used by the Holy Week liturgy as a sort of refrain throughout the three holy days..

Couperin here displays his prolific musicality and his sensivity to the rhythm and intonation of the Latin words, endowing the language with a sovereign freedom allowing the composer to express himself profoundly without superfluous effects. The musical phrasing is structurally ravishing in its effortless expansion and contraction, rise and fall. But Couperin’s greatest strength here is his emotional understanding. He emphasized fully with the text of Jeremiah’s psalm, bringing his own sweet, almost suave melancholy to the prophet’s plaint. He did not temper the lamento, as has been thought, but interiorized it and made it his own. With no exaggerated effects, using a single soprano or a double voice-line accompanied by organ and bass violin, here is some of the most poignant and moving music ever to come from the pen of this contemplative poet-composer.

Gérard Lesne, one of the greatest countertenors of our era, is in charge of transmitting Couperin's sublime musical language: his warm, unique voice, full of emotion, of an amazing technical perfection, flexible, stylistically perfect, with an indescribable sensuality, recreates all the inflections of this powerfully expressive music. He is joined by countertenor Steve Dugardin in the Third Lamentation, and at all times a stellar continuo team (Bruno Cocset on the bass violin, Pascal Monteilhet on the theorbo and Jean-Charles Ablitzer on the organ) provides the ideal support for the velvety solo voices. In addition, both Josep Cabré and Malcolm Bothwell provide their deep voices in the restitution of the plain chant and fabordon singing. The result is unrepeatable, one of those recordings that every person of taste must know.


  • Gérard Lesne, countertenor & direction
  • Steve Dugardin, countertenor (3rd Lesson)

Il Seminario Musicale

  • Josep Cabré, baritone (plain chant)
  • Malcolm Bothwell, bass (plain chant)
  • Bruno Cocset, bass violin
  • Pascal Monteilhet, theorbo
  • Jean-Charles Ablitzer, chamber organ

Additional information

  • Total time 56:31

    Booklet Booklet of 32 pages with liner notes by Jean Lionnet & Philippe Beaussant. Languages: English, Spanish and French. Original Latin sung texts translated into English, Spanish and French

    Recording Grand-Réfectoire de l'Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud, France, May 1991

    Sound and digital edition Dominique Matthieu & MC2 Chevreuse, Yvelines (France)

    Musicological research Jean Lionnet (Atelier d'Etudes du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles)

    Producer Michel Bernard Executive producers François-Dominique Jouis & José Carlos Cabello

    Cover design François-Dominique Jouis & Nicole Moscovitz

    Boolet design and coordination José Carlos Cabello

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François Couperin: Première leçon à une voix. Aleph. Quomodo sedet sola civitas
François Couperin: Deuxième leçon à une voix: Teth. Sordes ejus in pedibus
François Couperin: Troisième leçon à deux voix: Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere
Anónimo, canto llano: Verset: Christus factus est

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