Westminster Cathedral. Easter Lamentations. Palestrina. You can almost smell the incense before unwrapping this enticing new recording from the established masters of the genre.
Palestrina composed four sets of Lamentations, the third of which is recorded here. This most opulent of liturgies runs as a continuous narrative describing momentous Biblical events from the Last Supper through to Christ’s crucifixion and death. Throughout the centuries composers of sacred music have aspired to do justice to this most dramatic of scenarios and Palestrina’s settings rank amongst the finest. He employs a rich harmonic palette, constantly varying the vocal texture and using up to seven voice-parts simultaneously.
The Choir of Westminster Cathedral has an unparalleled reputation. Since its inception under Cardinal Vaughan and Richard Runciman Terry the choir’s uniquely ‘continental’ sound and its position as the world’s only Catholic cathedral choir to sing the full daily liturgy have met with consistent and repeated acclaim.
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Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina is thought to have been born in 1525 in the town of that name in the Sabine hills near Rome, and he died in Rome on 2 February 1594. His first musical training seems to have been in Rome at S Maria Maggiore, where he was listed as a choirboy in October 1537. In October 1544 he was appointed organist at the Cathedral of S Agapito in Palestrina, where he remained until his appointment in 1551 as Maestro of the Cappella Giulia at St Peter’s in Rome. In 1554 Palestrina published his first book of Masses, dedicated to Pope Julius III. In January 1555 he was admitted to the Cappella Sistina, the Pope’s official chapel, on the orders of the Pope without examination and despite being married. Three months later Julius III died and was succeeded by Marcellus II, who in turn died within about three weeks. The next Pope, Paul IV, insisted on full compliance with the chapel’s rule on the celibacy of its members, and Palestrina, who had married in 1547 during his stay at Palestrina, and two others were dismissed from the choir in September 1555. In the following month Palestrina was appointed Maestro di cappella at St John Lateran; he left in 1560, following a dispute with the chapter over the financing of the musicians. His next known employment was again at S Maria Maggiore, in 1564, where he spent the next five years combining this post with work for Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este. The latter work he continued on a more or less full-time basis until 1571, during which time he also taught music at the Seminario Romano. In April 1571 he took up his last appointment and returned to the post of Maestro of the Cappella Giulia, where he remained until his death.
This CD contains recordings of three groups of settings of verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah. It may be helpful in appreciating this music to consider briefly the liturgical context in which these texts occur. These three sets of Lamentations come from the Roman liturgy for Holy Week, which commemorates events which are central to the Christian religion: Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, and the lead up to the Resurrection (which is celebrated in the following Easter Week). Holy Week starts with Palm Sunday and leads to the deep solemnity of the rites of the Triduum: Maundy Thursday (Coena Domini), Good Friday (Parasceve) and Holy Saturday (Sabbatum Sanctum). This liturgy is notable for its complexity, fullness and variety. It contains some very diverse elements, including lengthy passages of direct quotation from the Old Testament (including Psalms, prophesies and Lamentations) and, from the New Testament, extended quotations from the Gospel accounts of the Passion; it also includes many responsories recounting and commenting on the events of the Passion, together with antiphons, prayers and new special ceremonies. The liturgy of the Triduum in particular is so copious that it is difficult to imagine how it all could have been celebrated in a mere three days and, indeed, a good many of the usual rites had to be amended or truncated to make this possible, all three nocturns of Matins being combined with Lauds into a special Office popularly known as the Tenebrae (Latin: the shades of darkness); the Office was substantially modified by Vatican decisions in 1955.
The special ceremonies included one—the Tenebrae, reaching its climax at Lauds during the singing of the Benedictus—of progressively extinguishing the lights in the church during the service. A set of candles mounted on a hearse, a triangular frame bearing fifteen candles, was placed in front of the altar. One candle was extinguished at the end of each Psalm of Matins and the end of each Psalm and Canticle at Lauds until only the topmost candle remained lit during the singing of Benedictus. While this Canticle was sung the six candles on the altar were likewise extinguished one by one, from each side alternately at every second verse, so that by the last verse all of these were extinguished. All other lights in the church were also put out. Then, during the repetition of the Benedictus antiphon ‘Traditor autem’ (which commemorates Judas’s treachery in the garden), the last lighted candle was hidden behind the altar, signifying Christ’s death. This was followed by further prayers, chants and the recitation of the Miserere (Psalm 51). At the end of the last prayer, a noise, representing chaos, was made by knocking on the choir stalls until the remaining lighted candle reappeared from behind the altar, as an anticipated signification of Christ’s resurrection. All present then rose and retired in silence.
On Maundy Thursday, after Vespers in secular uses, the special ceremonies also included the Mandatum, a footwashing ceremony, recalling Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet before the Last Supper, so called from its antiphon ‘Mandatum novum do vobis’ (‘I give you a new command’), from which, by corruption, Maundy Thursday derives its name. On Good Friday the special ceremonies included the Veneration of the Cross and a set of reproaches, the Improperia, addressed by the Crucified Saviour to his people. These are chanted antiphonally by two choirs during the Veneration of the Cross and comprise twelve verses which contrast the Divine compassion to his chosen people and the sufferings inflicted on Christ during his Passion. In the full rite the first verse is preceded by the refrain ‘Popule meus, quid feci tibi?’ (‘O my people, what have I done to you?’) and each of the first three verses is followed by the Trisagion (Greek: thrice holy), a refrain chanted first in Greek and then in Latin, and the remaining nine by the refrain ‘Popule meus’. The Improperia is preceded by a short plainsong antiphon ‘Ecce lignum Crucis’ (‘Behold the wood of the Cross’) and concludes with the antiphon ‘Crucem tuum adoramus, Domine’ (‘We adore your Cross, O Lord’). The rite has an ancient history, parts of it being traceable back to the seventh century.
The lectiones, the lessons, included in the liturgy of the Triduum are usually based on Biblical texts from the the Old and New Testaments or sometimes on reflections on such texts. They include extensive quotations from the Lamentations of Jeremiah. In the earlier Book of the Prophet Jeremiah he describes at length the evil ways into which the people of Judah and Israel had fallen, summarized in chapter 7 as ‘Behold, you trust in lying words that cannot profit. Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely and burn incense to Baal and walk after other gods whom you know not?’; and he gives a detailed account of his constant attempts to warn them of the consequences of God’s anger if they did not amend their wicked ways. They did not heed his divinely inspired appeals and the five chapters of the Lamentations of Jeremiah are devoted to bewailing this and describing in detail the consequences of this failure. There are three lectiones in each day of the Triduum, containing lengthy extracts from these chapters, and each lectio is followed by a Tenebrae Responsory quoting from and commenting on extracts from the Gospel narratives of the Passion.
In making polyphonic settings of the Lamentations composers selected only a small proportion of these texts, and the choice of verses varies from one composer to another. Palestrina composed four complete sets, of which the present is his third book, and all of these are based, with very small variations, on the same selection of verses. Although there was some variation in the choice of text, there seem to have been some other common conventions, which are evident in Palestrina’s settings. Each lectio sets to music not just the text of the verses chosen but also their Hebrew prefatory letters—Aleph, Beth, Vau … etc. The Hebrew alphabet consists of twenty-two consonants (which are not in our alphabetical order), each of which has an assigned numerical value, which in the Lamentation texts corresponds to the verse number of the text it precedes. The custom was to set these letters as reflective, often melismatic, interludes to the main text. In addition there were polyphonic settings of the introductory sentence which prefaced the first lectio in each day of the Triduum: ‘Here begins the Lamentation of the Prophet Jeremiah’ for Maundy Thursday, and ‘From the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah’ for the other two days. In a slightly confusing usage the last lectio on Holy Saturday, which takes all its text from chapter 5 of the Lamentations, the prefatory sentence is ‘Here begins the prayer of the Prophet Jeremiah’ and there are no Hebrew numbers in this lesson. Finally each lectio concludes with the exhortation ‘Ierusalem, Ierusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum’ (‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, turn to the Lord, your God’), which was set to different music each time.
The main challenge facing a composer of Lamentations is how to deal with the unremitting intensity of the narrative of grief, anger and suffering which the text presents, without writing music of unvarying sombreness that risks becoming monotonous. One approach could be to pick out and seek to dramatize particular incidents in the text or to use a good deal of specific word painting. Palestrina’s approach is more subtle than this. He occasionally employs specific word painting: in the second verse of the third Lamentation on Maundy Thursday, for example, in order to stress the phrase ‘for I have become vile’ he spices up cadential dissonance with a diminished fourth chord, which goes beyond the usual suavity of his dissonance treatment. But his main effects are broader than this. He employs a rich harmonic palette, and the modality of his writing is very flexible. He makes full use of the non-liturgical elements in the text—the Hebrew letters, the introductory and concluding sentences—to create a distinct contrast of style and atmosphere between these passages and those which deal with the main narrative. The writing in the former relies more on imitative textures and less on homophony than the latter and often employs bright tonal harmony producing a serene tone (the setting of ‘Iod’ at the beginning of Lectio III of Maundy Thursday is a good example of this) in contrast to the darker, more modally organized narrative passages.
Changes in the key signature and clef combinations allow changes of vocal groupings and vocal colour which provide constant variety and contrast within the music. The basic vocal group is a five-part ensemble. Up to seven different voices (SSAATTB) are called for in different combinations but never more than six are used at the same time. Thus in the Maundy Thursday set the basic group is SSATB in Lectio I, SATTB in Lectio II; and SSATTB in Lectio III. But there is also much effective contrast created by sections in reduced voices: for example, betweeen a low-voice quartet at ‘Omnis populus’ and the following high voice trio of SSA at ‘Vide, Domine’. In the Good Friday set the basic grouping is SATTB and in the Holy Saturday set it is SAATB, with much effective use of changes of reduced or increased numbers of voices.
In these ways Palestrina succeeds in providing much beautiful music of a high stylistic perfection, which responds well to the challenge of a highly charged and difficult text.
Jon Dixon © 2007