There are few pieces in polyphony that capture raw emotion the way Thomas Tallis did with his setting of “The Lamentations of Jeremiah.” The text comes from the Greek and Latin Bibles, a collection of five songs that follow the Book of Jeremiah and, in the Catholic canon, form the Book of Lamentations.
Jeremiah was not just lamenting the loss of life in the city, but the failure of all of his prophetic efforts to prevent the tragedy. Jerusalem was peculiarly important to the history of salvation. It was the footstool of Yahweh and was the chosen place for the revelation of God and of the Messiah. In the Hebrew bible, the chapters of Lamentations are written as an acrostic, with each each verse starting with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order.
Tallis kept the acrostic in his composition, inserting the words ALEPH, BETH, GIMEL, DALETH, and HE, that headed each verse in the Vulgate. Written for five-part male vocal — the highest part is often converted to a female alto part — each voice part sings its own sad melody, which all come together to form the greater song.
To further emphasize the deep melancholy effect of the music, Tallis added the refrain Ierusalem, Ierusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum (“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return unto the Lord thy God”). Liturgically, “The Lamentations of Jeremiah” traditionally formed part of the Holy Week service known as Tenebrae; in concert, choirs often choose a selection of the verses to sing.