Letters Of Lamentation

Gloss on the Lamentations of Jeremiah, Walters Manuscript, 12th Century. Source.

To my mind, Thomas Tallis composed some of the most beautiful music ever written. My appreciation of him is agnostic: it does not matter that much of his sacred choral music is in Latin, a language I have never learned. Nor does it matter that I’m not a singer, and have little experience of the liturgical world his music relates to.

What I love about Tallis is his gravity and naturalness: the way he combines sonorous stasis with florid flights. It’s not standard practice, but I sometimes like to play Tallis on the piano, just to feel how he does it under the fingers. And I was recently going through his first setting of The Lamentations Of Jeremiah when I noticed something odd.

One of my favourite passages is set to the single word ‘Aleph’. But unlike the other parts in my edition, it didn’t have an English translation underneath. A later passage, on the word ‘Beth’, was similarly lacking.

I can often make an educated guess with Latin, but I had no idea what these words meant, so I typed them into Google. What I learned must be old news to many choral singers, but it surprised me. They weren’t Latin at all. They were the names of the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

Lamentations is an Old Testament book, so it makes sense that it originated in Hebrew. Attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, it bewails the fall of Jerusalem to its enemies in 586 BC, interpreting it as a sign of God’s wrath.

And as I discovered, the inclusion of Hebrew alphabet names was, in fact, a common feature of Lamentations settings in the Renaissance. It makes them an unlikely textual palimpsest, spanning two thousand years.

Woodcut for Die Bibel in Bildern, 1860. Lamentations of Jeremiah. Source.

Hans T. David outlines the story of these letters in a fascinating article. Ancient Hebrew poetry sometimes used an acrostic form, running through the alphabet series. The alphabet, symbolising order and completeness, is suitable for praising God, and was used for ‘some of the most exalted’ poems.

But the original Lamentations poems took this idea to an unusual extent. All bar one of its five chapters – as the poems became in the Bible – use alphabet acrostics, with variations in the number of lines per letter. In this tragic context, perhaps the exalted acrostic form had an ironic inversion – as Norman K. Gottwald has argued, it could be seen to spell out ‘the collective grief of the community in every aspect’.

That the letters found their way into the music books of Renaissance Europe is an impressive survival. It relied on them being retained through translations into Greek, and then into Latin, for the Vulgate Bible. But Lamentations acquired its musical impetus when the church incorporated it into the lessons for the Tenebrae Office.

Forming part of Holy Week, Tenebrae marked the extinguishing of light in the days preceding Easter Sunday, before Christ’s resurrection. Though it predated Jesus by half a millennium, the book of Lamentations fitted the mood for this period of sorrow and darkness.

Crucially, however, the lessons only selected a few choice verses from the book. So now not only were the acrostic letters alienated by language, but their serial completeness was lost too.

Instead, the letters became the ruined pillars of an old poetic structure. And it seems this very opaqueness, this gothic archaism, became an inspiration to composers. As David notes, from early chant settings to the first polyphonic settings in the late 15th century, you often find the Hebrew letters are given special melismatic elaboration, like the ornate first letters on an illuminated medieval manuscript.

The 16th century saw a huge number of Lamentations settings, including those by Lassus, Victoria and Palestrina. Publishers even started to print compilation books of them. As the Reformation and various counter-Reformations swept Europe, with appalling levels of violence, perhaps this desolate text resonated for good reason.

It’s particularly interesting that while reformers debated the use of vernacular language in sacred music, and the appropriate simplicity for the dignity of worship, these Hebrew letters provided the opposite: a moment where composers could step beyond literal meaning, and experiment in pure sound, touched with a mystical ancient authority.

Looking again at the words on my edition, I realised that something else was odd. The first line is an announcement: that what follows are the lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah. Then, after polyphonic repetition, comes ‘Aleph’.

I was amazed. Those first two beautiful sections – which sound so expressive of lamentation – are effectively just titling! To get a sense of the strangeness: imagine a pop singer’s introduction ‘this next one’s from my new album’, only those are the opening lyrics of the song itself.

It is a remarkable framing device, and it sets the Old Testament text at a distance. It is as if Jeremiah’s world is having to be hauled up with effort, across a gap of two thousand years.

Making this discovery has certainly enriched my understanding of the music. But what really interests me is how the process of the Hebrew letters losing their context has been duplicated, in my modern enjoyment of Tallis.

For all the years I’ve loved this music, the words have had the same opaqueness as the ancient acrostic. I knew the text had a religious meaning, but I didn’t need to understand the details. Because Tallis’ music gave me enough meaning in itself. 

Memorably, a lecturer at university once told me that it is only within living memory that you can consider yourself an educated European without learning any Latin. Well on that count, guilty as charged, I suppose. But the Lamentations offers a lesson in how religious, linguistic and musical meanings can evolve in surprising ways.

Now I can encounter Tallis at my leisure on recordings, hear him in secular concerts – even read about him in Fifty Shades Of Grey, should I feel inclined. He sounds more intuitively ‘of our time’, in my view, than a lot of music composed in the following centuries. And no doubt, the meanings of his beautiful music will continue to evolve too.

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