The Tenebrae Responsories is a major work in MacMillan’s choral output written for Cappella Nova in 2006 and first performed by them the following year at St Andrew’s in the Square, Glasgow. MacMillan says: ‘I have always loved the Victoria settings of these texts and preciously guarded my old, and now legendary, recording of these by the Westminster Cathedral Choir under George Malcolm. It was a delight to be asked by Cappella Nova to set some of them myself.’
There are three movements which form a spiritually engaging and emotionally involving work which relates back in its searing intensity and some of its choral effects to Seven Last Words from the Cross (1993), one of MacMillan’s seminal earlier works. This work is also about the crucifixion. The word ‘tenebrae’ means ‘darkness’ and refers to the Catholic practice of gradually extinguishing candles following readings of the Psalms in special Holy Week services.
The first movement is intensely chromatic, the second begins with three great choral outbursts of ‘Tradiderunt me’ (‘They delivered me [into the hands of the ungodly]’), returning at the end. They are then picked up at the start of the final movement with another three shouts of ‘Jesum’ (‘Jesus was betrayed by the ungodly man …’). The end is yet another example of MacMillan’s ability to give his audience something which will figuratively send them to their knees. A treble solo emerges from a final impassioned choral phrase describing how Peter followed the crucifixion procession from a distance to see the end, and he sings a dying soliloquy, a lament, walking off stage until he can no longer be heard. This remarkable work leaves a vivid impression in performance.