Polyphonic settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah enjoyed considerable popularity in the sixteenth century, with a publication by the printer Ottaviano Petrucci (Venice, 1506) gathering together most of the earliest known examples. By the 1530s, Morales was following in a well-established tradition in composing Lamentations: along with his Sistine Chapel colleague Costanzo Festa he produced large numbers of settings, though these were not published until 1564, eleven years after Morales’s death. It is not known whether these settings entered the Sistine Chapel repertory, since an earlier version, composed by Carpentras (Elzéar Genet) appears to have been sung until the 1580s, being eventually replaced by that composed by Palestrina. The significance of the texts lies in their liturgical use as lessons in Matins of the Triduum Sacrum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday): whereas lessons would normally be intoned on a simple recitation formula, these are supplied with more elaborate plainsong. These ‘lamentation tones’ are often reflected in the polyphonic settings, including those of Morales.
Another unusual feature of Lamentation settings is the retention of the Hebrew initial letters to each verse. The Lamentations formed an acrostic poem, and the practice of Renaissance composers was to introduce each section with an extended, melismatic setting of the Hebrew letter. Together with the refrain ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, turn to the Lord your God’ which ends each setting, these elements produce a highly meditative musical atmosphere, as the harrowing texts of Jeremiah’s poem are transformed into polyphony that alternates simple homophony with great elaboration. The three sections presented here are the third lesson on Good Friday (Coph. Vocavi), and the first and second on Holy Saturday (Zai. Candidiores and Nun. Vigilavit respectively); these liturgical designations ceased to apply after the promulgation of the Tridentine service books later in the century, however.
from notes by Stephen Rice © 2008