Tenebrae super Gesualdo

Motet with instrumental interpolations for mezzo-soprano with guitar and instrumental ensemble


20 minutes



Dedication The memory of Eleanor Waite

Commissioned by





Mezzo-soprano, guitar, alto flute, bass clarinet, marimba (+ glockenspiel), harpsichord (+ celesta and chamber organ or harmonium), violin (+ viola), cello



Composer Notes

Programme Notes

Short Note by Paul Griffiths

Davies discovers aspects of himself in examining one of his most troubled predecessors. That discovery can take place either on his home ground (in the mezzo-soprano version, written for The Fires of London), or with chorus singing Gesualdo’s O Vos Omnes and repeatedly falling silent so that the musical argument may continue on a different plane, that of Davies’s four meditations for sextet, murmuring darkly about Gesualdo’s ideas.

Extended Note by Stephen Pruslin

This work consists of four meditations, in Maxwell Davies’s own style, on Gesualdo’s darkly chromatic music. There are moments, when the violin, celesta and glockenspiel come into their own, that are shot through with light – but the predominantly dark instrumentation (alto flute, bass clarinet, with strings, harpsichord, chamber organ and marimba used mainly in their lower registers) and the generally very soft dynamic level combine to create a shadowy and mysterious atmosphere that further reflects the work’s title.

n the version written for The Fires of London and published by Chester Music, Davies’s instrumental meditations are separated by three interludes for voice and guitar which distil an essence of the Gesualdo original and which, taken together, set the text ‘Attendite et videte si est dolor similis sicut dolor meus’ (Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow). In this version, the relationship between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ sections is reversed as in a photographic negative, so that the meditations are perceived as the ‘originals’ and the brief glimpses of Gesualdo as the ‘commentary’.

In the choral version of the work, the four instrumental sections may also be performed interspersed with the successive sections of Gesualdo’s motet, O Vos Omnes, which is then sung complete at the end.

The Tenebrae super Gesualdo were written in memory of Eleanor Waite, who was a pupil of Maxwell Davies at Cirencester Grammar School in the early 1960s, and who died at the premature age of nineteen. The work, including the interludes for voice and guitar, was originally performed by The Fires of London together with (but not interspersed among) Gesualdo’s choral music in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, as part of the 1972 South Bank Summer Music.

This is a copyright note, and may not be reprinted or reproduced in any way without prior permission from the author.


First Performance

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London (South Bank Summer Music)

Friday, 25 August 1972

The Fires of London