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ClassicsOnline Home » Lamentations (Oxford Camerata)
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Robert White (1538 - 1547)
Thomas Tallis (1505 - 1585)
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525 - 1594)
Oriande de Lassus (1532 - 1594)
Estdvao de Brito (1575 - 1641)
Lamentations are lessons (that is to say collections of verses) taken from the Old Testament book The Lamentations of Jeremiah. Each verse of the text is prefaced by successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet (Aleph, Beth, Ghimel, Daleth, He etc.). Lamentations were used within the old Roman Catholic liturgy during Holy Week as part of the night-time office of Matins (otherwise known as Tenebrae, literally 'darkness'). This nocturnal usage elicited some of the most sombre and darkly expressive writing from those Renaissance composers who set these texts. The verses were generally set simply and syllabically; by contrast, the Hebrew letters which punctuate the verses were set melismatically and expansively, thereby fulfilling a musical function similar to that of illuminated initials in a medieval manuscript.
The English composers Robert White and Thomas Tallis composed their Lamentations during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. In spite of the Latin texts, these settings show the obvious influence of Reformation ideology. Subtle word-painting abounds (the result of humanistic influence), nowhere more eloquently than during the celebrated final section of Tallis's first setting. Here the words 'Plorans ploravit in nocte' ('weeping, she [Jerusalem] weeps in the night') are set both melismatically in a manner otherwise reserved for the Hebrew letters and expansively as a deliberate response to the emotive text. Both White and Tallis used the words of the Lamentations as a vehicle for a peculiarly English musical style. The harmonic structures are adventurous, within which the music often wavers deliberately between the major and minor modes. Similarly, the regular use of false relations as an expressive device is an element that distinguishes this English style from the various musical styles characteristic of continental composers of the time.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Orlande de Lassus were two of the most prolific composers of the continental Renaissance. Italian and Franco-Flemish respectively, both composers wrote full sets of Lamentations for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Unlike those of White and Tallis, these settings by Palestrina and Lassus are more restrained than much of the other sacred music of the period. Even simpler and more stark are the Lamentations of the Portuguese composer Estêvao de Brito. Polyphony flourished later in Portugal than in most other European countries at a time when the Portuguese people were living under Spanish rule. Like much Portuguese music of the early-seventeenth century, de Brito's Lamentations owe much to Spanish antecedents while stretching certain aspects of the late-Renaissance style to the limit. In particular, de Brito underlines his Portuguese individuality at the words'non est lex' ('there is no law') by treating a dissonance in a manner that would have been regarded as unlawful by Renaissance musical theorists.
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Lamentations (Oxford Camerata)