The Old Testament Lamentations of Jeremiah are highly penitential, even hopeless in spirit, which makes them ideal material for the religious service with which they are always associated - Matins on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. This service, traditionally held after dark, became known as Tenebrae. The darkness, the emotive events of Holy Week itself, the sombre texts and intense music, combined to make Tenebrae one of the most powerful experiences in the Church's year.
This recording presents six settings of the Lamentations. Each ends with the call "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, turn to the Lord your God", as was customary in the Roman Catholic liturgy of the sixteenth century. The other verses chosen for each setting rarely overlap. All the composers, with the exception of Palestrina, follow the convention of preceding each verse with the Letter from the Hebrew alphabet (Aleph, Beth, Teth, Ghimel etc), as found in the Hebrew original of the Old Testament. This practice, like numbering the verses of a chapter, allowed composers to make an expressive distinction between the Letters, which they set in elaborate abstract music, and the text proper, which is more syllabic, more matter-of-fact. Where the Lament itself has the kind of immediacy which can sustain the use of dissonant harmony and word-painting, the Letters come over by comparison like an illuminated initial in a medieval manuscript, colourful against the black certainties of the script. It is this juxtaposition of the freely elegiac with the bitterness of Jeremiah's complaints, that makes this music so fascinating.
© 1998 Peter Phillips