Triduum Sacrum

Matthew Schellhorn writes about his work planning for Holy Week with vocal ensemble, Cantus Magnus.
It has once again been my enormous privilege to plan and put into effect the musical repertoire for the Sacred Triduum celebrated at St Mary Moorfields in the City of London, organized by the Latin Mass Society.

I first took on this responsibility in 2012, and it is remarkable how much one seems to grow in understanding and appreciation of the task in hand the more one experiences the beauty and the power of these sacred ceremonies.

In earlier years, I was preoccupied with musical standards in individual services. More recently, I have become more aware of the overall shape of the Triduum as a whole. I mean this not only in a liturgical sense but also in a musical one. Now, I try to plan the musical repertoire such that those who attend all the ceremonies are not bored or become so acclimatized to the musical style that they cease to be moved by it. By the same token, it is crucial that for the person who might attend even only a few services, or even one, he or she take away something fresh, exhilarating and meaningful from that encounter.

This year, I should say, was the most ambitious programme yet, particularly on account of our performances of the complete Tenebrae Responsoria by Carlo Gesualdo di Venosa (1566–1613) over three days. This remarkable nobleman – Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza – has supplied us with the most astonishing settings of the Tenebrae Responseries: these texts are most commonly heard as set by near-contemporary Tomás Luis de Victoria (c. 1548–1611) and yet here we encounter them in an unnerving, almost post-modern manifestation – shocking dissonances and disturbing chord progressions move us into musical territory as far removed from our comfort zone as Christ himself in his human form was from us on the first Good Friday.

As I choose the music, another priority for me is to try to reflect the universality of the Catholic religion. Hence, we had English settings of the Mass and of the Passion (by Tallis and Byrd respectively), Italian settings of the Benedictus at all three Tenebraes (by Palestrina, Asola and Anerio), and a French menu to pull together the various strands of the Easter Vigil (by Gounod and Franck, with organ music by Vierne). This brings me to a rather surprising South American piece which for its sheer beauty and appropriateness of style I continue to use year after year – a most moving setting of one of the Mandatum Antiphons (Domine, tu mihi lavas pedes) by José Maurício Nunes Garcia (1767–1830), a Brazilian priest who was also a very gifted and prolific composer.

To fulfil all these ideas, I am particularly grateful to my friends and colleagues who form the vocal ensemble, Cantus Magnus, which I founded six years ago specifically to provide polyphony and chant for celebrations of the traditional Latin Mass: my objective for this group is precisely to perform sacred music in the context for which it was composed. It is a very rewarding aspect of my work that I might not only bring to congregations the joys of such wonderful music but also to fellow musicians the joys of such wonderful sacred ceremonies.

This article was first published in Mass of Ages, the quarterly magazine of the Latin Mass Society, in Summer 2017 (Issue 192)