Tenebrae: Best Ways to Make the Strepitus?
  • A question for those who have planned Tenebrae services in the past: What method(s) have you found most effective for making the strepitus? I'm working with my pastor to set up a Tenebrae service for Holy Wednesday night, and have come up with three possibilities myself:

    --a number of people stamping their feet in the vestibule
    --a thunder sheet
    --Bishop Elliott's suggestion in Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year of a block of wood and a large hammer

    Any other suggestions?
  • JDE
    Posts: 588
    No. 3 worked for Mahler (check out the 6th Symphony).

    Feet stamping might sound more like a football game.

    That leaves the thunder sheet. Problem solved! Except where to get a thunder sheet . . . do they sell those at Lowe's?
  • We dropped two legs of a piano bench on a wooden floor. It sounded great when the place was empty but not quite right when it was full.
  • G
    Posts: 1,397
    Arrange with God for an enormous thunderclap;o)

    (The first Tenebrae service I ever attended, at the exact moment when our programs suggested we pick up our hymnals and smack the back of the pew in front of us, out of a clear sky, there came such a noise from the heavens that many people in the church cried out in alarm...no one's been able to arrange it since, though.)

    Save the Liturgy, Save the World
  • john m
    Posts: 136
    At one church that had a trapdoor to the cellar in the sacristy, we found it very effective to throw several folding chairs down the cellar stairs and then drop the trapdoor shut.
  • What we had hoped for was a large tympani covered with a blanket and struck with a large mallet. That would be ideal, at least in my view. Alas, it didn't work out.
  • My childhood (Lutheran) church simply had the pastor slam a book shut. It was extremely effective -- I remember Good Friday tenebrae services more distinctly than practically everything else.
  • I think a very effective way and that involves everyone in it is to use books and hit the pews with them. It involves everyone there, and so it becomes an act of supplication I think? Of course, I am not really sure still what the purpose of the strepitus is supposed to be. Is it supposed to give expression to the people crying out to God to not leave us in darkness? If so, then I think using your Liber or whatever other book you have handy is an easy and effective way of doing the strepitus.
  • john m
    Posts: 136
    I have heard the strepitus defined as two different things: as a reminder of the earthquake upon the death of the Saviour on the Cross; and as a representation of the closing of the tomb.
  • Hugh
    Posts: 198
    We have a wooden floor in our church & this worked last year: men (in pitch darkness) lifting one of the church pews at the back of the nave up to about hip height & dropping it - twice. Only trick is trying to co-ordinate the lift & the drop in the dark - visual signs are impossible and whispering "NOW" would spoil the effect. It's all very dangerous (back and feet are obvious potential casualties of a poorly co-ordinated drop) & I have no idea what the support beams are like now in that part of the floor, but that's part of the charm.

    Couple of years we just slammed the door to the choir loft at the back of the church. That was quite good too - a pregnant mother sitting in the front pew reported that her child leapt in her womb at the noise. Very biblical.
  • Couple of years we just slammed the door to the choir loft at the back of the church. That was quite good too - a pregnant mother sitting in the front pew reported that her child leapt in her womb at the noise. Very biblical.

    They didn't happen to name the child "John," did they? :-D
  • john m
    Posts: 136
    An Episcopalian organist of my acquaintance makes the strepitus by drawing the 32-foot and several 16-foot stops on the Pedal of the organ and stepping on the bottom 4 or 5 notes. It is a sonic effect that literally shakes the building.
  • francis
    Posts: 10,667
    I have symphonic timpani and a large crash cymbal : one huge crash at the end of increasing swells of timp roll at the lowest pitch... Was very effective (and scared the hell out of the pip)

    I also made an electronic strepitus for those of you with really good sound system.. We don't so I didn't use it

    will post tomorrow
  • The time-honoured way is for everyone to slam books shut or (as mentioned above) on the pews. The other methods mentioned here seem rather theatrical and not liturgically apt - if not downright tasteless. There is a simple and telling honesty about the books slamming. Many years ago I had to improvise the strepitus on the lower organ pedals. This was a tradition in this Lutheran church and a swarm of boys would rush upstairs to the organ to watch my feet performing this terrifying sound. After several years of this I managed to convert them to book slamming.
  • Hitting pews with Glory and Praise to drive the devil out?
  • francis
    Posts: 10,667
    We burn the G&Ps to get the fire part happening

    mjo ... sounds like you designed quite an effective, albeit, theatrical strepitus in your own right (for years). I guess you have renounced that method for proper book slamming!

    I have 32' and 64' on the organ.... Excellent idea for this coming year!
  • francis
    Posts: 10,667
    OK... here it is... a high tech, electronic (totally theatrical) version... (made with a Mac in Garage Band) Be sure to hook your computer to a good sound system (preferably with a Subwoofer) the bigger, the better and turn it up as loud as you can stand it. It WILL shake your building. In the middle you can hear demons screaming in terror.

  • This impressed me more that we were going in full warp into the outer reaches of space on the USS Enterprise than of Golgotha and demons getting their due. Perhaps I need a more impressive array of speakers.
    The presence of a 64' on your organ signals unmistakably that your organ is not a real one.
    I believe that there is only one actual 64' in the world - in Australia (Sydney?), I think.
    I stand to be corrected on this.
  • francis
    Posts: 10,667

    Maybe... it's definitely a cool effect, but I don't think I would use it at liturgy, para-liturgy, pre-liturgy, post liturgy or any kind of church service... ever. It was fun to make, however. It would be good for living stations perhaps in a dramatic arena. The Bass will really shake things up!

    I have the three manual Allen Renaissance with a few 32's and a 64 Resultant. Here is a pic. It has four instruments: French Romantic, Neo-Baroque, American Classic and Orchestral. It also has a Zimbelstern.


    It does shake the entire church and sometimes to the point that I fear it will break the windows or something... (the windows cost more than the organ) ... so I really never use it... for music, anyway. (but the strepitus will be a great way to employ it for something!) I don't even like it for concerts. Of course I am a baroque lover, so big and tubby is just not my style.

    It truly is a shame that digital instruments (organ wannabes) are taking over the installations these days. I think they are an OK initial step to getting the real thing, but should NEVER replace that ultimate goal.

    So, did you do a cluster when you did your 'organ pedal strepitus'?
  • Francis -
    Yes, it was (I suppose you could say) a cluster of sorts... more a jumble of clusters. This was a tradition which I inherited and got free of as quickly as possible.
    Although I would enjoy finding SOMEthing to use it for if I had a 64', it would definitely be improvisatory and not in any literature of which I am aware!
    It appears that we champion the same literature. Actually, I skip from anything Baroque or earlier to much of the XX. century repertoire. With few exceptions (such as the Frank chorales), I find little satisfaction in the greater part of the romantic era's output. There is nothing on earth to compare to playing the major Bach works - though, for me, some of the alternatim repertory comes close.
    (Oh: what does an electronic zimbelstern sound like?)
  • francis
    Posts: 10,667
    Yes. I could not agree more wholeheartedly. For me that includes Shubert, Mozart and the other music that just doesn't stay with you after the performance is over. What do you consider the alternatim?
  • Well, at the top of my list would be de Grigny and Titelouze. Then of course, your namesake Francois, and the whole catalogue of Frenchmen from this period. Honestly, much of the French repertory of the post-Titelouze era is in my opinion very uneven in quality and does not (nor was it meant to) stand on its own as music without the appropriate chant. And, the later into the XVIII. century one gets the worse it gets. There is much to be said for the oft stated assertion that German music has more of substance than any other. I have played (in liturgy) the hymn 'partitas' of J G Walther and others in alternation with hymn verses - this is a tradition which, so far as I know, only the Lutherans have kept alive and well. I have also done Titelouze hymns in liturgy for AGO vespers; and, wouldn't hesitate to do the same at a Catholic mass if the ocassion arose. Then there is a plenitude of mass and hymn alternatim repertory from the pre-Baroque eras: Tallis, early Tudor and pre-Tudor, the Buxheimer Book, etc. Most people nowadays would consider using this music at mass or vespers to be farfetched. But, I think we have lost (and need to regain) a more relaxed and meditative approach to our liturgy. This has been a rather jumbled answer to your question. Perhaps your question could prompt a general discussion about the spirituality of alternatim mass and office music as well as the virtues of specific composers and examples of the same. There is no reason at all why this manner of singing-playing should be an historical curiosity rather than a living tradition. It is, after all, evidence of great liturgical sophistication and spiritual development.
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    There are in fact two full 64' reeds in existience: Sydney Town Hall, as well as on the Atlantic City Convention Center organ, a 6'4 Dulzian-Diaphone. There are other 64' reeds which extend for a few notes (and are probably useful for pieces in B!), and some flue resultants (such as at Cologne Cathedral), although I'm not aware of any extant 64' flue.
  • Maureen
    Posts: 674
    The one in the monastery, where they had a wooden board with rocks on it and they shook that... very scary.

    It seems pretty clear that the strepitus is supposed to be the earthquake noise (though that's a type and antitype of all sorts of things), and that Catholics throughout the ages have exercised a lot of permissable creativity playing with this sound effect. It seems to be done more realistically in areas where people have heard large earthquakes, and everybody else just goes for thunder or "startling loud noise".

    It's one of those precious few moments when it's suddenly an asset to have kids who like making loud noises, or ingenious folks who like to horrify or prank people. Since these are very often the groups who are getting into trouble the rest of the year for the same talents sanctified by the strepitus, I think giving them a bit of free rein is justified.

    (If you ask rambunctious little boys ahead of time to pound the pews, are they going to wimp out like adults might? No! But you'll have to give them a count of time in which to do it.)

    (It also will probably help the shy not to be so horrified the next time they happen to drop their hymnbook in church.)
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    How about microphone feedback? That's certainly a loud, painful noise...
  • matthewjmatthewj
    Posts: 2,694
    If you have noisy choir risers, they can often be jumped on or something dropped upon them to make a good noise.
  • francis
    Posts: 10,667
    throwing the piano out of the choir loft is an incredible sound (and it gets rid of the piano to boot!)
    Thanked by 1Jahaza
  • Jeffrey Quick
    Posts: 2,044
    At St. James, they use some kind of loud wooden clacker. I would think a percussionists slapstick would work as well. It's sharp, loud, and chilling.
  • Jeffrey Q: I never thought of using a slapstick or clacker, though the wooden-block-and-hammer approach would obviously be cheaper. What we ended up doing for our Tenebrae year before last was having an usher bang on a piece of scrap metal with a hammer—well, not so much "bang" as "tap," since the usher seemed to be a bit unclear on the concept.
  • netrider
    Posts: 1
    I go to a large downtown church that's over 100 years old. The balcony is all wood. I take a 2x4, lay it on the wood floor, and hit it with a hand sledge. The little old ladies jump every time but it gets rave reviews. I go for 15-20 randomly spaced strokes. Sounds like a cannon going off.
  • BenBen
    Posts: 3,114
    We've always had what I think is a theatrical thunder sheet in the loft, as well as two Holy Thursday clackers in the sanctuary, used by servers. In addition to that, the worship aid instructs those present to bang hymnals on the pews, if they'd like.

    Edit: Now that I think about it, in the loft, it might also have been the timpani that are up there for Easter being played in a chaotic way.
  • mahrt
    Posts: 517
    The old Liber calls for knocking on the stalls of the choir; we use the books on the choir benches. I, too, have observed the little old lady jumping.

    I think it is useful to reflect on this unique sound in the liturgy. It may allegorically represent the earthquake on Good Friday. But more generically, it represents chaos. The last days of Holy Week show an increasing absence of musical instruments, and after the Mass on Holy Thursday, the order of the church building is disassembled; there is a gradual abstention from the elements of order. In the Tenebrae, the progressive extinguishing of the candles and the lights in the church contribute to this, though there is still a musical order to the service. Only at the end of the Tenebrae is this noise made, and this is the only time in the entire year that noise is made for its own sake. I view it as symbolizing the death of Christ as a fundamental chaos.
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • francis
    Posts: 10,667
    i use the 64' resultant by itself, and play the lowest three notes on the pedalboard which renders it practically inaudible and wow... it feels like a real earthquake as the entire church shakes. a couple of years ago i bought a nice crash cymbal, and i use timpani mallets to create a swell that lasts about 20 seconds to go along with it. people scream and run out in horror. (jk)
  • One year long ago we used a cymbal crash (or dropped an old broken cymbal on the floor...not sure which), and this brought a sharp, loud expletive from a very old lady parishioner. I think the next year something chaotic was played on the organ instead.