The Genre of the Lamentations

In the Catholic liturgy, one text provided a source of inspirations for many composers and many masterpieces: the Lamentations of Jeremiah. The genre spanned several centuries, and kept a number of peculiarities which are explained here.

The Lamentations are found in the Book of Lamentations in the Bible, immediately following the Book of Jeremiah. They are part of the liturgy of the Holy Week, and exemplify the important component of lament, atonement and repentance of the Paschal festivities.

The text itself consists in 5 chapters. All but chapter 3 have 22 verses: chapter 3 has 66 verses. The chapters are acrostic in the original Hebrew: that is, if one takes the first letter of each verse, one obtains the alphabet in its usual order. In ancient times, letters also served as numerals, so the initial letters were both numeral and acrostic. (In the case of chapter 3, verses are grouped in sets of three, each verse within a set beginning with the same letter, and the 22 sets ordered alphabetically.) The last chapter is called the Oratio or the Prayer of Jeremiah.

As an example, the opening Hebrew words for each of the first 5 verses of the first chapter are:

Remember that the order of the Hebrew alphabet is ABGDH: Aleph, Bet, Gimel, Dalet, Heth, etc.

For the English text of the Lamentations, see for example the King James Version. As used in the Catholic liturgy, the text comes from the Latin Vulgate text. But the translators of the Vulgate decided to keep a trace of the original arrangement of the poetry, and kept the hebrew letter at the beginning of each verse (there are other examples in the Bible, e.g., Psalms 36, 110, 111, 118, 144). The chant setting of the Lamentations respected the Vulgate, and the initial letters became the occasion for extended melismas, that is, long groups of notes on the same vowel (something rather unusual in Gregorian chant, though by no means rare: many alleluias have melismas). That tradition is probably as old as Gregorian itself, and may have roots in Hebrew liturgy. Most Renaissance and Baroque composers followed the tradition of melismas in their musical settings of the Lamentations.

The Lamentations were used in the office of matins of the Holy Week. matins. There are 3 offices, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Over time, the office moved from morning to the night before, so that in some cases the lamentations are named for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday: for example in the Charpentier version. At the Sistine Chapel, where traditions died hard, the matins still took place in early morning in the 19th century.

Each office consists in 3 vigilae; each vigila consists in 3 psalms with respons and 3 lectures with respons. The Lamentations were read/sung in three lectures at each of the first vigila (the other lectures were drawn from the New Testament and Saint Augustine respectively). The Lamentations therefore consist of 3 sets of 3 lectures, for Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Each lecture is ended with the call: Jerusalem convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum (Jerusalem, return onto the Lord thy God) which actually comes from Hosea 14:1.

Composers set various amounts of text to music (Gesualdo and Charpentier also sets the responses). And, in the course of the office, various amounts of text might be sung depending on the available time. Here are some examples:

Carpentras (1539)
     Day 1: 	1:1-4		1:5,4:1-2		1:11-13
     Day 2:	2:8-10		2:11,1:14-15		4:10-12
     Day 3:	3:22-29		1:8-9,2:17		5:1-7
Lasso (1584)
     Day 1: 	1:1-3		1:7-9		1:12-14
     Day 2:	2:8-10		2:13-15		3:1-9
     Day 3:	3:22-30		4:1-3		5:1-6
Charpentier (end 17th)
     Day 1:	1:1-5		1:6-9		1:10-14
     Day 2:	2:8-11		2:12-15		3:1-9
     Day 3:	3:22-30		4:1-6		5:1-11
Zelenka (1722)
     Day 1:	1:1-5		1:6-9		(missing)
     Day 2:	2:8-11		2:12-15		(missing)
     Day 3:	3:22-30		4:1-6		(missing)

The Carpentras set pre-dates the Council of Trent, which is why its choice of verses is more chaotic.

A Partial List of Composers who wrote Lamentations





François Velde