Sounds of Holy Week from St. Thomas

The Saint Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in New York City is renowned for its music, but here are a few non-musical highlights from Holy Week:

From Tenebrae: The Strepitus

Tenebrae is the Latin word for “darkness” or “shadows,” and refers to the ancient monastic practice of keeping vigil with song and prayer during the last three nights of Holy Week.  One of the features of this service is the gradual extinguishing of candles, so that the church becomes darker as Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross becomes nearer.  Shortly after the final candle extinguished, loud noise called the “strepitus” is made; this noise recalls the earthquake and the rending of the Temple veil at the moment of Jesus’ death.

This “loud noise” can be as simple as dropping a heavy book or slamming a door (or, for that matter, a piano lid).  As often as not it falls to the music person to generate the strepitus; if it is to be done well, it can tap one’s deepest creative reserves.  In my years as a music director my various strepiti have involved bass drums, gongs, clappers, hammers, two-by-fours, cymbals, handbells, and even an autoharp (don’t ask).  So I was especially interested to hear what they do at St. Thomas—I think that you’ll agree that it’s quite dramatic.

Listen to it here.

From Maundy Thursday: The Stripping of the Altar

From the explanation of the liturgy on the church’s website:  “Then, after the altar has been left naked, the Rector emerges, and, by pouring from two cruets, he creates small puddles of water and wine in places on the surface of the altar that represent the wounds of Christ. He then scrubs the altar using a bundle of dried palms from Palm Sunday, a link to the triumphant arrival in Jerusalem that in days became tragedy. When he is finished loudly scrubbing, he tosses the bundle of palms aside, and the choir immediately stops singing, and all the lights are suddenly out, and the church is left in darkness as choristers run through the church, scattering themselves in frightened flight. The bare altar is left alone and abandoned.”

Listen to it here.

You can listen to these services in their entirety as well as all of the sung Holy Week and Easter services by visiting the St. Thomas webcast archive here


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