Tenebrae (using the word in the sense of "darkness") was written during 1992-3, with the aid of funding generously provided by the Chandos Memorial Trust, and is dedicated to Barry Douglas. It is the result of several diverse influences. One is the personal loss of three much-loved and admired musical friends during 1992, Sir Charles Groves and the composers William Mathias and Stephen Oliver - this particularly affected the tone of the work. Another, earlier impulse was the enormous opening section of Hermann Broch's novel The Death of Virgil, a description of the arrival of the dying poet at the port of Brundisium and the carriage of him through the crowded streets to the apartments in which he was to die.
Three musical impulses also underlie the work, the nature and form of Chopin's Barcarolle (though at about 20 minutes Tenebrae is much longer), a typical texture to be found in Beethoven's piano writing using the extremes of the piano (to be heard towards the end of the work), and perhaps above all my long-standing fascination with the world of Liszt's two late pieces entitled La lugubre Gondole (The funeral Gondola).
Tenebrae is a continuous single movement, arising out of a theme that is heard (following the short but important introduction) largely in the bass, with the accompaniment in the right hand - this format is used almost exclusively for each episode in which this theme is gradually unfolded. There are intervening episodes which slowly move the music to an increase in pace and a central section of rhythmic character and some degree of violence, and following the final climax (marked quasi Cadenza), the main theme returns, this time in both hands above an accompanying bass figuration, to move the music this time to a sense of greater peace and possibly acceptance. At the close, however, when the very opening returns, the calm is disrupted by echoes of one of the more agitated ideas, leaving the work in a mood of ambiguity and loss.
© 1993 John McCabe