Blog / Bryce Dessner: Tenebre

Bryce Dessner: Tenebre

Posted on 25 Jan 2016 by Leo Messias

Pictured: Bryce Dessner

Composed 2011 

Born Cincinnati, 1976

"Tenebre began as a conversation with Kronos Quartet about writing a piece as a gift for Laurence Neff, Kronos’ longtime lighting designer, celebrating his 25th year with Kronos and his 50th birthday. The piece was also commissioned by the Barbican in London for a celebration of Steve Reich’s 75th birthday. As I thought about how to approach the piece I spent a lot of time investigating the relationship between music and light, which led me to the Holy Week service called Tenebre. 


Good Friday Services & Tenebrae at Basilica of St. Mary Minneapolis, MN.

Tenebre is a mass service before Easter that many Renaissance and Baroque composers, and even some modern composers, have written music for. The significance of the Tenebre service for me is its relationship to light. There are 15 candles extinguished through the service, the final darkness symbolising the death of Christ. I looked at Tenebre not in the context of religion but for its use of light, and how composers have scored that descent into darkness.

‘I spent a lot of time investigating
the relationship between music
and light . . .’


I used the writing of the piece as an opportunity to study some of my favorite Renaissance vocal music, and I chose to reference Tenebre settings by Tallis, Gesualdo and Palestrina, as well as an incredible Tenebre service by Couperin. These small quotes are woven together in an abstract way and my Tenebre inverts the form of the service: rather than going from light into darkness, we go from darkness to light, to symbolise Larry’s illumination of Kronos Quartet’s music.


François Couperin (1668-1733), 'Trois leçons de ténèbres' by Les demoiselles de Saint Cyr.

Since Tenebre is built and inspired by vocal music, I wanted to include vocals at the end of the piece. In the finale of my Tenebre, the texture expands to three quartets playing (all recorded by Kronos), and an octet of voices sung by my friend Sufjan Stevens. He sings a layered amoeba-like melody of Hebrew letters (which are sung as part of the traditional Tenebre service), and then the first line of the Tenebre reading, Incipit Lamentatio Ieremiae Prophetae, which translates to ‘Here begins the Lamentation of Jeremiah the Prophet.’ So the piece ends where it should begin." BRYCE DESSNER

Bryce Dessner's critically-acclaimed piece Tenebre is featured on the Beethoven & The 21st Century program featuring his friend and collaborator, Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, and ACO Collective. Touring Australia from 4 to 19 February. 

Beethoven & The 21st Century

4-19 February
Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Newcastle, Sydney

NICO MUHLY (arr. strings) Part I from Drones & Violin
ERKKI-SVEN TÜÜR Action–Passion–Illusion
TIPPETT A Lament from Variations on an Elizabethan Theme
BRYCE DESSNER (arr. strings) Tenebre
SIBELIUS Rakastava
BEETHOVEN (arr. strings) String Quartet in F minor, Op.95 ‘Serioso’