Good Friday Tenebrae and Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In January 2023, my neighbor, Rachelle Fleming, texted me, inviting me to her home to meet Hugh McElyea, a composer friend. Knowing Rachelle, I knew that we would have a lovely time, but I wasn’t expecting to encounter a composer who was absolutely fascinated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. What ensued was a wonderful evening of three musicians engaging in all manner of conversation about all sorts of topics, including that of an oratorio that draws parallels between the crucifixion of Christ and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death at the hands of the Nazis. By evening’s end, I knew that BMPC would have to perform Hugh’s “Tenebrae: The Passion of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”

Who is Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who spoke out against the Nazi regime on the day Adolf Hitler came to power. His ties to the July 20, 1944, conspiracy to overthrow the Nazi regime led to his execution in 1945. His theological writings are regarded as classics throughout the Christian world.

What is Tenebrae?

“Tenebrae” means “Darkness.”  In the early church, monks gathered on the eve of Good Friday to remember Jesus's last days. This became a traditional 4th-century monastic service called “Tenebrae,” meaning “darkness.” During the service, thirteen candles are extinguished one by one as the gospel account of Jesus's Passion is accompanied by Gregorian Chants. The church is left in total darkness as the service ends.

Who was Maria von Wedemeyer?

A few days before his arrest, Dietrich was engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer, a young woman he had taught as a student. He befriended several prison guards who smuggled letters to his family and fiancée, even arranging brief face-to-face meetings. Through his poems and letters, we gain a deeply personal glimpse into the life of the man. In this presentation, the mezzo-soprano also portrays Mary Magdalene.

While setting the ancient service of Tenebrae in wartime Berlin, the music reflects the tragedy of war and the sacrifice of one man who stood up and spoke truth to power. Having made the ultimate sacrifice, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom remains a source of inspiration and a warning in our own time. 

As the Allied bombing of Berlin neared, Bonhoeffer realized that he might not survive and opened his Bible to read the Passion of Jesus for the last time. He was taken from Tegel Prison to the Buchenwald concentration camp and later transferred to the Flossenburg prison, where he was tried for treason and hanged on April 9, 1945, just days before the end of World War II. In the end, his final words to a fellow prisoner were, “For me, this is the end, but also the beginning. It is certain that our joy is hidden in our suffering and our life in death.” 

“Tenebrae: The Passion of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” will take place on Friday, March 29, at 7:30 p.m. in the sanctuary. The production features Nicholas Provenzale as Bonhoeffer, Rachelle Fleming playing the dual roles of Maria von Wedemeyer and Mary Magdalene, and WRTI host Michael Bolton as the narrator. The Bryn Mawr Chamber Singers and a chamber orchestra round out the cast. You are invited to a pre-performance talk at 6:30 p.m. in the Fullerton room with the composer, Hugh McElyea, and Rev. Rob Schenck, the founder and president of “The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute.” The performance will be live-streamed.