Within the liturgy of the Catholic Church there is a long tradition of singing the Lamentations of Jeremiah during Holy Week, based on a parallel being drawn between the text’s description of the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC and the death of Christ. By the time of Couperin and de Lalande, a practice had been established in which the text was divided into nine ‘lessons’ sung over three days, with one candle of a special candelabra being extinguished after each lesson, until ‘tenebrae’ or darkness was achieved on Good Friday. Originally sung early in the morning on the relevant day, by the mid-seventeenth century the lessons were given the evening before, possibly as a response to the new vocal styles, which made the singers reluctant to perform at dawn. The traditional ban against the use of instruments during Holy Week is reflected, if not strictly adhered to, in the sparse settings of both de Lalande and Couperin for bass viol and chamber organ. The deeply spiritual aspect of the Leçons de Ténèbres can also be inferred from the complaints by contemporary writers concerning the use of opera singers: these did not always declaim the music with the necessary decorum.
Some of the finest examples of the genre are the three Leçons by François Couperin, composed for the royal monastery of Longchamp c. 1714. (Couperin himself at one time referred to a full set of nine lessons, but only the three for Holy Wednesday are known today.) Couperin, named ‘Organiste du Roi’ in 1693, was the colleague of de Lalande, ‘Maître de Chapelle’ at the French court, whose own Leçons were composed for the royal chapel. The five Leçons de Ténèbres gathered here are performed by two of the finest sopranos in the field of early music, Emma Kirkby and Agnès Mellon, who here makes her first appearance on BIS. They are given expert support by Charles Medlam and Terence Charlston, both members of the distinguished ensemble London Baroque.