Although Tisha b’Av is not for another month (this post written in 2011), writing about holidays in advance allows people to use my posts, to whatever extent, in their preparations for a holiday.
Tisha b’Av is a somber day, commemorating as it does the destruction of both the First and Second Temples. To “capture the mood,” tradition tells us not to listen to any music at all (for recreational purposes) during the 3 weeks preceding it, beginning with the 17th of Tammuz (begins sundown 7/19 in 2011).
In the synagogue, the only “music” associated specifically with Tisha b’Av itself is the special trop or nusach used for chanting “Eichah” — the scroll of “Lamentations,” originally written by the prophet Yirmiyahu/Jeremiah.
In the Church, however, there’s a long tradition of setting parts of “Lamentations” to music, although for use at a different time of year and for a different liturgical context.
A few weeks ago, I happened to hear a recording of sections of “Lamentations” (in Latin) by the Spanish Renaissance composer Victoria. I’m not otherwise familiar familiar with his work (unlike Palestrina’s or Josquin’s, for example). I was just overwhelmed by the beauty, power and simplicity of his settings. It was impossible not to wonder: Could there be a place for such music, at least in our preparations for Tisha b’Av? Are there other pieces to consider, too?
The following excerpt is from an online article surveying some of the “Lamentations” settings that can be heard.  Congregations that are interested in experimenting might think of including some of this music as part of their Tisha b’Av service, or as a prelude to it. Individual congregants (or those who are unaffiliated but aware of the holiday) might want to listen to some of these, too.
“‘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 (“The Lamentation of Jeremiah the Prophet begins”) 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.
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.
Renaissance polyphonic settings include those by Victoria, Palestrina, Ferrabosco the Elder and the last 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) and Peter-Anthony Togni.”
In subsequent posts, I’ll be giving my own impressions of some of these pieces.
To hear the megillah (“Eichah”/ “Lamentations”) reading and other musical features of Tisha b’Av: