Tenebris Litterarum [Dark Letters]

for string quartet

Emma-Ruth Richards

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for string quartet

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Composer Emma-Ruth Richards
Year of Composition 2019-20
Duration ca.21'

Categories (all composers) , ,
Catalogue ID ce-err1tl1


Tenebris Litterarum sits as a collection of ‘letters’ – ‘intimate letters’ – and is initially intended to be performed alongside Janacek’s second string quartet. Just as Janacek’s Intimate Letters were intended to reflect the character of his relationship with Kamila Stösslová, as revealed in their exchange of more than 700 letters, Tenebris Litterarum is a piece that has, at its heart, an unspoken but significant extra-musical programme. Ernest Hemingway once said that you should ‘write hard and clear about what hurts’ so perhaps, even if in the end it doesn’t quite ‘hurt’ as Janáček put it—he actually compared one idea in the finale of the second quartet to ‘cutting flesh’— my quartet is intended as a spiritually powerful piece that provokes the deepest of thoughts and the utmost intense feelings through a discourse of intense lyricism and rhythmic mechanisms. Structurally, these letters loosely follow the order of the Tenebrae service (depicting the passion and held before Easter Sunday) which is characterised by the gradual extinguishing of candles, and by a “strepitus” (loud noise) taking place in total darkness near the end of the service.

The quartet opens as if the light’s source is a secret. The violins “lacerate the darkness like blades searching the heart” (Journals, Baudelaire) and the music builds into soul-shredding sobs and groans that claw to the surface. The lines gradually pick up speed “fastening their claws into every crevice and tear screaming” across one another at times vanishing like cries. (Journals, K.Vaughan) The second letter is a devilish harlequinade that rushes by, leaving behind disorder. Letter 3 depicts the darkness surrounding a collapsing star “as though pre-memory’s years flowed like lava into the mind […] as if I were drinking my own tears from a stranger’s cupped hands” (Requiem, Akhmatova). In the fourth letter silence itself ‘speaks’; whilst every stone is shouting ‘Die!’ (Vita Nuova, Dante) the lull between these sounds is like the eyes of an animal caught for a moment in a car’s headlights. The pizzicato fifth letter contains several mechanisms that are tightly-wound springs constantly striving for sustained motion; the musical ‘prisons’ gradually rupture from within and are hollowed out until eventually “the theme escapes and hammers on the window with its fists” (Requiem, Akhmatova). The second to last letter is representative of the “strepitus” towards the end of the Tenebrae service; although solo voices strike up snatches of earlier themes, they are drowned out by two repetitive pitches that pass and repass in arches like throbbing black molars. The sounds are eventually smothered in a blanket of invisibility and the final letter emerges from the shadows: “out beyond its edges delicate white clouds emerged from the glow and drifted toward night like birds with soundless silver wings” (A Love Story in Letters, Rilke/Salome). “He bent, with closed eyes, towards death [and] then from a remote part of his soul he heard a sound crying ‘holy’” (Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse).