Laments are well-known from the Bible, especially the book of Lamentations, but are also found throughout the ancient Near East. Biblical authors likely took inspiration from the forms used in these surrounding cultures. An early and famous example of such a poem is the Sumerian Lament over Ur (c. 2000 BCE), a city-state in the region of Sumer in modern-day Iraq. The lament is one of five such Sumerian poems, each of which mourns the loss of a different city. At 438 lines long, the Lament over Ur presents a detailed story of the city's destruction, starting with the goddess Ningal's pleas that the god Engil turn back the storm sent to ravage the city, then moving into graphic descriptions of Ur's eventual destruction. The tablet above, which has preserved this lament for four millennia, is housed at the Louvre in Paris. Although nearly 1500 years elapsed between the destruction of Ur and the fall of Jerusalem, the genre of the city lament remained popular, and has visible influence on biblical literature. The impact of the genre is perhaps most obviously felt in the Book of Lamentations, but traces can also be found in Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Psalms. The bleak tones of these poems, in which Yhwh deserts the city and allows—or even causes—its destruction, have been a key feature of the literary responses in the wake of heavy loss.
The destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE changed everything. Few texts express the sense of loss and longing that resulted from this as poignantly as the Book of Lamentations. The five laments in the book give voice to an emotional response to the destruction of the city, blaming the sins of a personified Jerusalem for the horrors her citizens now face. The fragment shown is from 4QLam (also known as 4Q111), the largest of the Lamentations scrolls from the Qumran texts discovered in the Judean desert. The text in this extract is Lamentations 1:6–10 (albeit with some important differences between the readings given in this scroll and the traditional Hebrew text, the Masoretic text). Lamentations 1:6–10 speaks of Jerusalem’s sin and the punishments bestowed upon the city in colourful terms, with imagery whose shock value is exacerbated by the portrayal of Jerusalem as female: Jerusalem 'has become an impurity—all who honoured her make light of her, because they have seen her nakedness' (v. 8). Laying issues of gendered violence momentarily aside, this text points to some of the key questions raised in the aftermath of exile: what caused this, and what does this mean? For the author(s) of Lamentations, the answers are that Jerusalem’s own transgressions brought about its downfall, and the result is that the city and people have been abandoned by Yhwh. The lament tradition was a longstanding one and may be seen also in the Lament for the City of Ur.
Rembrandt’s Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem depicts the prophet mourning the loss of the city, which can just be made out on the left hand side. Portrayed in sharp detail against an otherwise soft background, Jeremiah leans to his left, propped up by a large book marked Bibel. The position of the prophet is somewhat reminiscent of Michelangelo’s portrayal of the same prophet in his earlier Sistine Chapel fresco (1508-1512 CE). Jeremiah 39–52 records the fall of Jerusalem and its immediate aftermath. Unlike Ezekiel, whose book speaks from the perspective of Babylonian exile, the book of Jeremiah speaks with the voice of those left behind in Judah; the prophet, it says, was granted permission to stay in Judah by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. When Jeremiah left Judah with others who had been left in Judah by the Babylonians, he went Egypt. Jeremiah was traditionally also considered the author of the book of Lamentations. This is attested even in the early translations of the Bible—the Septuagint, the translation into Greek, for example, includes a superscription that ends 'Jeremiah sat weeping, and lamented this lament over Jerusalem'. The perceived connection between Jeremiah and Lamentations is due in part to the two books' linguistic similarities, although this may simply be due to their shared subject matter and close chronological proximity. 2 Chronicles 35:25 records Jeremiah chanting a lament over the death of Josiah the king, which may have helped the two books to be connected in the subsequent tradition.
The most famous of all settings of Lamentations is that composed by Thomas Tallis in the middle of the sixteenth century CE. By the time that Tallis composed this work, the text of the Lamentations was an established part of the liturgy of Holy Week. European Christianity thus used the texts of the Lamentations—which had been written either as a direct reaction to the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians, or in order to recall the horror of the destruction during the rededication of the newly rebuilt temple in the late sixth century BCE—to express despair at the liturgically re-lived crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Tallis used the Latin text of the Vulgate translation of the Bible. The Hebrew poetry of Lamentations used a stylistic device quite common in Semitic languages: it was written as an acrostic. Instead of spelling out a word or name with the first letter of each verse, Lamentations goes through the letters of the alphabet in their Hebrew order—aleph, bet, gimel, daleth, he, and so on. In order to preserve this feature, the Vulgate translation has the name of the Hebrew letters preceding each verse, and Tallis, like most other composers included that into his music. By Tallis' time, it had already become common to compose the names of the Hebrew letters in a different style to the rest of the setting, perhaps comparable to the way the first letter in an illuminated manuscript often differed from that of other letters on the same page.
Like other composers working with Lamentations, John Mundy used the names of Hebrew letters to structure his music. The Hebrew text of Lamentations begins each line of a verse with the same letter, beginning with the first letter of the alphabet: thus the the first verse starts with א (aleph), the second verse begins with ב (bet) and on through the alphabet. The tradition of attempting to convey this in musical works comes via the Latin Vulgate translation of Lamentations, in which each verse was preceded by the name of a Hebrew letter. In musical works these letters are often used to give room to the musical abilities of the composer—they function a little bit like the large letters in an illuminated manuscript. Where Mundy's Lamentations differs from those by his predecessors is that, apart from the title and the Hebrew letters, he does not use the text of the Lamentations. Instead his Latin text expresses anguish about the schisms in the Roman Catholic Church that arose during the Reformation. This creative use of both the form and the name of Lamentations, in order to evoke the anguish which the Lamentations so powerfully express, demonstrates the extent to which the upheavals of the Reformation were perceived by Mundy and others in the sixteenth century as a disaster—comparable to the destruction of Jerusalem—and, indeed, a disaster for the Church's conception of itself as a New Jerusalem.
John Duggan's Lamentation is at the same time both quite unusual and quite traditional in its setting of this now-classic text. Unusually, he adds a soprano soloist and a solo trumpet to the more common choral sound. His choice of text, however, is quite traditional, using the traditional introduction, 'here begins the Lamentation of Jeremiah', which is not from the Hebrew text but inferred from the Greek Septuagint; he finishes with a quote from Hosea 14:1 ('Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return unto your God'). Like the piece by Cecilia McDowall, Duggan's composition showcases the best in modern British composition, combining tradition features with departures from tradition in order to bring the ancient text and expression of liturgy to a modern audience.