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Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Turn Back to the Lord, Your God

With April Fools' Day falling in this most solemn week this year, I am not inclined toward any joke posts today. For those looking for a good joke, we direct you to last year's whopping poisson d'avril. In other news, Evan Tucker's Washington Complaints Choir project, sent to the carefully dubious editors at DCist on today of all days, was judged a hoax by yours truly, but it provides some good laughs so have a look. [SVILUPPO: It has been brought to my attention that the Washington Complaints Choir is not a hoax: they just happened to send their press release on April Fools' Day.]

Ilya Yefimovich Repin (1844–1930), Cry of the Prophet Jeremiah on the Ruins of Jerusalem, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Last night, a large congregation filled the beautiful church of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land, a site in northeast Washington well worth a visit, for a Tenebrae service. The format of the liturgy, a sort of combination of Matins and Lauds for Holy Week, is based on a reconstruction attributed to Rev. Winthrop Brainerd, the former pastor of the Church of the Epiphany in Georgetown. The music, performed and led by the Suspicious Cheese Lords, the all-male vocal ensemble based here in Washington, was a combination of simple English chant, intoned on a single reciting note, and a handful of polyphonic selections. These ranged from Arvo Pärt's De profundis, a meditative setting of Psalm 129 (130) with exotic percussion ("Holy Minimalism, Batman!"), to William Byrd's gorgeous Ne irascaris Domine, an unusual setting of a text taken directly by Byrd from Isaiah 64, not from a chant text.

In this work, Byrd uses a musical image to suggest the desolation of Jerusalem in the secunda pars, a stringent homophony that sounds a lot like the English-language anthems he wrote for the Anglican church: it stands out like a sore thumb in the midst of the more complex imitative (read Catholic) polyphony of the rest of the work. Here, the image of the ruins of Jerusalem suggests the loss of the Catholic Latin rite in England. The reference to the loss of the civitas sancti tui relates the work to the most beautiful piece in the service, a selection from Antoine Brumel's setting of the Lamentations, Cogitavit dominus, proper to Good Friday. The piece ends with the interpolated refrain to the Lamentations lessons, adapted from Hosea 14, translated in the title of this post. The service also ended with a strepitus, the loud noise that is meant to symbolize the convulsion of the earth at the death of Jesus, that was the most percussive cacophony of noise ever witnessed at one of these services.

Thomas Tallis, Lamentations I (Holy Thursday, Matins, Lesson 1)

The Lamentations of Jeremiah are the forgotten texts of the Triduum, the three days at the end of Holy Week during which the Catholic Church commemorates the establishment of the Mass, the suffering and death of Jesus, and his rising from the dead. They are largely forgotten by modern Catholics because of the near-total disappearance of the celebration of the Divine Office: substantial sections of the Latin translation of the Old Testament book were featured as lessons in the night office of Matins on the three days of the Triduum in the medieval liturgy (along with excerpts from Augustine's commentary on the Psalms and some of Paul's epistles). In this way, the Church compared the torture and execution of Jesus to the devastation of Jerusalem described by Jeremiah (referenced by Dante to describe his sorrow at the death of Beatrice): how could God possibly allow "the city of perfect beauty, the joy of all the earth" -- or his own son -- to be so utterly destroyed and devastated? These services were done away with by the reforms to the Holy Week liturgies by Pope Pius XII in the mid-20th century, but in some churches they are subsumed in a Tenebrae service, celebrated on Wednesday of Holy Week, as parallel services are often scheduled in Protestant churches.

Thomas Tallis, Lamentations II (Holy Thursday, Matins, Lesson 1)

The Lamentations are a highly stylized set of poems, four of which are abecedarian in structure, meaning that the initial letters of the 22 verses are in alphabetical sequence. In the Latin translation used by the Catholic Church, the Hebrew letters starting each verse were preserved in transliterated form (aleph, beth, etc.). These exotic words intrigued composers who set the Lamentations to music, first as chant and later in polyphony, inspiring lengthy melismas and unusual chromatic colors. The form of the Lamentations in the Liber usualis is, like much of its content, a modern homogenization of medieval chants that were much more ornate -- see, for example, my paper "Text and Music for the Lamentations: A Comparison of Settings in Cambrai XVI and Graz 29," in Medieval Perspectives 10 (1995): 86–100. The infinite number of later polyphonic settings of the Lamentations, like those of Tallis and Brumel in the Renaissance and of Carissimi, Frescobaldi, and others in the Baroque, only became more ornate. The videos embedded in this post can provide a very effective Holy Week (or just purely musical) meditation.

Thomas Tallis, Lamentations II, cont. (Holy Thursday, Matins, Lesson 1)

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