Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet

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This article is about musical settings of the Lamentations. For the Biblical book itself, see Book of Lamentations. For the liturgy for which the music was composed, see Tenebrae.

The Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet have been set by various composers.



Thomas Tallis made two famous sets of the Lamentations. Scored for five voices (either one on a part or in a choral context), they show a sophisticated use of imitation, and are noted for their expressiveness. The settings are of the first two lessons for Maundy Thursday. As many other composers do, Tallis also sets the following:

  • The announcements: Incipit Lamentatio Ieremiae Prophetae ("Here begins the Lamentation of Jeremiah the Prophet") and De Lamentatione Ieremiae Prophetae ("From the Lamentation of Jeremiah the Prophet")
  • The Hebrew letters that headed each verse: Aleph, Beth for the first set; Gimel, Daleth, Heth for the second. These letters were considered part of the text in the Latin Vulgate Bible of Tallis's day, although most English translations omit them. Tallis's use of 'Heth' rather than the correct 'He' appears to have been an error
  • The concluding refrain: Ierusalem, Ierusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum ("Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return unto the Lord thy God") – thus emphasising the sombre and melancholy effect of the pieces

Tallis's two settings happen to use successive verses, but the pieces are in fact independent even though performers generally sing both settings together. Composers have been free to use whatever verses they wish, since the liturgical role of the text is somewhat loose; this accounts for the wide variety of texts that appear in these pieces.

William Byrd's setting is rarely performed despite his popularity and importance, not only because it appears very early in his output (he seems to have been about 20 when he wrote it and not very experienced as a composer), but also because the surviving copy is missing a voice part for much of its duration, requiring substantial editorial reconstruction.

Other settings include those by Robert White.

European Renaissance[edit]

Continental polyphonic settings of the Renaissance include those by Marbrianus de Orto, Victoria, Palestrina, Ferrabosco the Elder and Lassus (1584).


Leçons de ténèbres are a French chamber solo style most famously represented by the lessons and responsories of Marc-Antoine Charpentier and the Leçons de ténèbres of Couperin. The high baroque Central European style also includes choral and orchestral settings of lamentations by composers such as Jan Dismas Zelenka.


Contemporary settings include those by Igor Stravinsky (his Threni), Edward Bairstow, Alberto Ginastera, Ernst Krenek, Leonard Bernstein (his Jeremiah Symphony, which contains Hebrew text in the final movement), Ivan Moody, Peter-Anthony Togni and Salvatore Ferrantelli (b.1940) (his SATB a cappella choral concert motet, "O Vos Omnes"), and Jason Carl Rosenberg (b.1979) (his Ph.D. dissertation composition, L.O.S.T., for 16-part mixed unaccompanied choir).

See also[edit]