Jerome Roche writing in Palestrina (Oxford Studies of Composers), claims that Palestrina wrote 41 complete sets of Lamentations for Tenebrae, although in his notes to their recording of Lamentations for Holy Thursday, Book III, Simon Ravens, director of Musica Contexta, says that only four sets survive.
These Lamentations come from the Roman liturgy for Holy Week, which commemorates events which are central to the Christian religion: Jesus’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. [Jon Dixon, CD booklet, Lamentations, Westminster Cathedral Choir, Martin Baker. Hyperion Records, No. CDA67610 (2007).]
Musica Contexta is a professional ensemble specializing in the performance of Renaissance sacred music. At its heart is a core group of eight men with a particular commitment to Renaissance music: Two countertenors, two tenors, two baritones, and two basses. The group was formed and is directed by Simon Ravens.
Their name, “musica contexta”, translates literally as “music interwoven”, reflecting the group’s primary aim of presenting Renaissance music in the context of its original conception and function. Ravens says this about how the group came to be, the meaning of their name and their methods, “one Christmas midnight I heard on the radio a ‘liturgical reconstruction’ of a mass as it might have occurred in the English Chapel Royal sometime in the middle of the 16th century. Separated in time by Gregorian chant, each movement of John Sheppard’s Cantate mass sounded as dynamic and lavish as any music I’d ever hear: it felt right. A few years, and a few experiments later, when I set up Musica Contexta, I had no doubts about the line I wanted to take.” (Musica Contexta website)
In 1998 Musica Contexta released the first of three recordings, the 2nd and 3rd arriving in 2000 and 2002, devoted to Palestrina’s Book III of Lamentations. Ravens incorporates the appropriate responsorial chant selections, as per his stated practice of presenting the music “in context”.
On this recording, Ravens uses a dozen men (not all the same ones each time), but the Lamentations are set for five voices, adding a sixth voice on the third piece each night, and the extra voice may be soprano, alto, or tenor, so this is a small ensemble. The chant responsories follow the edition of Holy Week chants published by Guidetti in 1587. The notation is oddly rhythmical, chiefly resulting in an occasional short note among the prevailing longs. The interpretations have been carefully worked out, and the sound of the Sistine Choir is arguably recaptured with this group. One of four surviving sets of Lamentations by the composer, this appears to be the favored setting. (J. F. Weber, Fanfare, July/Aug 2002)
Other versions of the Palestrina Lamentations include Book IV by Pro Cantione Antiqua, Bruno Turner, and an alternate for Book III (complete on 2 discs) by Cori Spezzati directed by Olivier Opdebeeck (a larger group, producing a choral sound).
The three CDs by Musica Contexta join these other two recordings as very good choices for this music, which is some of Palestrina’s most solemn and spiritual, as befits the occasion.
Palestrina: Music for Maundy Thursday
Recorded in: All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London, 23 – 25 October 1997
Palestrina: Lamentations for Maundy Thursday I-III (Book III), Benedictus, Miserere mei. Chant: Guidetti, Rome, 1587
Palestrina: Music for Good Friday
Recorded in: All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London, 20-22 April 1999
Palestrina: Lamentations for Good Friday I-III (Book III), Vexilla Regis, Crux fidelis – Pange lingua, Improperia. Chant: Guidetti, Rome, 1587
Palestrina: Music for Holy Saturday
Recorded in: All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London, 18-20 April 2001
Palestrina: Lamentations for Holy Saturday I-III (Book III), Stabat mater, Benedictus for Holy Week, Sicut cervus
Chant: Guidetti, Rome, 1587