Introducing Palestrina’s Lamentations: A Series For Holy Week 2013

Aleph Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo

Introduction: For this year’s Holy Week I’ve decided to post Palestrina’s Lamentations Of The Prophet Jeremiah in their entirety a series on the days on which Palestrina intended them to be sung:

  • Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday|Spy Thursday).
  • Good Friday.
  • Holy Saturday.

They’re  beautiful pieces of music that will more than repay the time you spend listening to them. You’ll also get far more enjoyment from your listening if you know a little bit of the context in which Palestrina composed them and in which they were meant to be performed. Thus this introduction.


The Liturgy of Holy Week

The liturgy for Holy Week and the music composed for that  liturgy celebrates several events are central to the Christian religion:

  • Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.
  • The Last Supper
  • The Crucifixion
  • The lead up to the Resurrection and the Resurrection itself.

Holy Week starts with Palm Sunday and leads to the solemn rites of the Triduum:

  • Maundy Thursday (Coena Domini).
  • Good Friday (Parasceve).
  • Holy Saturday (Sabbatum Sanctum).

Central to these very complex rites are readings from the Old Testament – Psalms, prophesies and Lamentations, and from the New Testament – extensive quotations from the Gospel accounts of the Passion, together with  responsories,  antiphons, prayers, and special ceremonies.  These special ceremonies include the Tenebrae during which the candles lighting the church are progressively extinguished. This series deals with Palestrina’s setting of the Lectiones, the lessons, included in the liturgy of the Triduum which are generally either based on Biblical texts from the the Old and New Testaments or on reflections on such texts. Each day of the Triduum has three lectiones each of which is followed by a Tenebrae Responsory that quotes from and comments upon extracts from the Gospel narratives of the PassionLectiones always include extensive quotations from the Lamentations of Jeremiah and may consist exclusively of such quotations as is the case in the settings by Palestrina featured in this series.

Palestrina And The Music of Holy Week

Palestrina faced a formiddable task in making settings of the texts used during the rites of Holy Week he needed to write music that was moving and noble which gave full weight to the harrowing subject matter of the text but which avoided sombre monotony. Of all the obstacles he faced in the chief is the nature of the texts themselves – they are very intense, dealing as they do with grief, anger, indescribable physical agony, and spiritual suffering. His polyphonic settingsof the lamentations1 consist of a selection of verses and their Hebrew prefatory letters 2.  In Hebrew the alphabet consists of twenty-two consonants each of which has an assigned numerical value. In the Lamentation text the prefatory letters corresponds to the verse number of the text it precedes and were traditionally set as meditative interludes to the main text – Palestrina followed this tradition in all of his settings using the prefatory letters as a way of relieving the unremitting intensity of the text. He also set the introductory sentences which preface the first lectio for each day of the Triduum.

I think Palestrina succeeded in his task of producing music appropriate to its text without being bleak, he employed several techniques to do so such as deploying a rich harmonic palette, and being very flexible in his use of modal writing. He also seized the opportunities presented by the text’s non-liturgical elements such as the Hebrew prefaratory letter and the introductory and concluding sentences to create  create a brighter more serence  style, atmosphere, tone and texture in these secondary elements which contrasts with the darker and more modally organised principal narrative texts.

Another technique that Palestrina used throughout the lamentations was to alter the key signature, clef combinations, vocal colour and vocal groupings to provide contrast, variety, and interest throughout the music. He starts from a vocal ensemble consisting of five parts used up to seven different voices (SSAATTB) in varying combinations. For example in the lamentations ‘In Coena Domini’ (Maundy Thursday) the basic group is SSATB in Lectio I, SATTB in Lectio II; and SSATTB in Lectio III. Palestrina takes this further by contrasts in reduced voices sections for example in Lectio III in for Maundy Thursday Palestrina creates a musical contrast by using a low-voice quartet at ‘Omnis populus’ and a high voice trio (SSA) at ‘Vide, Domine’:

Caph: Omnis populus eius gemens, et quaerens panem;
dederunt pretiosa quaeque pro cibo
ad refocillandam animam.
Vide, Domine, et considera quoniam facta sum vilis!

All of these are just some of the things you will hear as you listen to what is one of the most sublime musical responses to texts and rites central to the Christian faith.


  1. He composed four complete sets of lamentations the set featured in this series are from his third book.
  2. Aleph, Beth, Caph, Heth, etc.
Series NavigationGiovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (±1525-1594): Lamentations for Maundy Thursday ‘In Coena Domini’ >>

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