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Tenebrae represents a complete musical setting of the texts prescribed for the Office of Tenebrae observed Thursday in Holy Week. In its complete form, Tenebrae is intended to be used liturgically, providing new musical material that is organic to the nature and purpose of the service while appealing to the modern aesthetic. The influence of several musical styles associated with these texts is intended to ground the new work with the service’s traditions. Selections of this composition are designed to be excerpted for concert performance or for use in other liturgical functions.

The first half of the office consists of texts occurring in cycles of threes, each cycle bringing the service deeper into darkness. Musically, the change in tone is represented by a gradual increase in dissonance and a modulation in style. The texture at the beginning is simple, with little counterpoint and harmonies that track a melodic line in an approximation of the effect of parallel organum. The Lessons of the First Nocturn introduce references to Renaissance polyphony and the virtuosity associated with the Leçons de ténèbre. The music becomes denser and more agitated until reaching moments of aleatory and extreme dissonance in the Second Nocturn. The Third Nocturn presents a gradual return to the meditative sound world of the opening.

At Matins consists of one large dramatic arc encompassing three smaller arcs representing each of the three nocturns. At Lauds consists of a fourth arc at the level of the nocturns, but presents a different aesthetic. At this point, the service descends deep into meditation as the church continues to darken. The music, then, must complement the service’s meditative qualities rather than create a distraction.

As a whole, Tenebrae can be thought of as one large stylistic arc that begins in the meditative sound-world of Sacred Minimalism, proceeds to references to chant and organum, then to polyphony and Baroque style until it reaches a tonal space at home in the 21st century. The process is then loosely reversed as the piece ends.