03/22/2012 12:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Lent: Music for a Penitential Season

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The "Golden Century" of Spanish sacred music owes much of its splendor to Cristóbal de Morales -- a Roman Catholic composer whose works were as famous in colonial America as they were in Europe.

A native of Seville, Morales held positions in Ávila and Plasencia before moving to Italy in 1535 where he served as a musician in the chapel of Pope Paul III for 10 years. Returning to Spain in 1545, he became the music director of Toledo cathedral and later at Málaga.

Although Spanish by birth, Morales's compositional style reflects the profound influence of his extended stay in Rome. One of his more austere examples, a partial setting of Psalm 17 (Circumdederunt me) was performed by the choir of Mexico City cathedral in 1559 to mark the passing of Emperor Charles V.

Especially pertinent for us at this time of the year is Morales's Lamentabatur Jacob, a Roman work composed for Pope Paul III at the same time that Michelangelo was putting the final touches on the Last Judgment (1537-41) that graces the Sistine Chapel.

Diaries from the pope's chapel reveal that Morales's Lamentabatur Jacob was sung at Mass on the third Sunday of Lent and its performance there became an annual event. As late as 1711, Lamentabatur Jacob was lauded as the most precious composition in the whole archive of the Sistine Chapel.

Nearly half a millenium after its composition, Lamentabatur Jacob continues to move us as an introspective work of somber tones and descending melodies that aptly characterize the lament of Jacob, patriarch of Israel, over losing the only sons born of his beloved wife Rachel.

But the point of the motet is more about Jacob's perseverance in faith than his sorrow. In spite of all that had been taken away, the patriarch responded by tearfully casting himself upon the ground and worshipping the Lord.

For that reason, among many others, St. Ambrose revered Jacob for his patience of heart and endurance during a time of trial -- a useful reminder for those of us who have already tired of the small sacrifices we resolved to make at the start of the Lenten season just a few weeks ago.

As we renew our Lenten resolutions at the midpoint of this season, perhaps we might consider doing so as Pope Paul III did centuries ago -- reflecting on Michelangelo's Last Judgment while listening to its monumental peer in the music of Cristóbal de Morales.

Morales's Lamentabatur Jacob is one of his most widely performed works. But one performance that captured my attention recently was an especially sensitive rendering by Ensemble VIII, an outstanding vocal group under the direction of Dr. James Morrow.

The performance featured here was recorded live on October 22, 2011, at San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, Texas. The plaintive text -- not without its silver lining:

Jacob lamented for his two sons: "Woe, I am bereaved of Joseph, for he is not, and afflicted because of Benjamin who is taken away. I pray the King of Heaven in my distress that He may make me see them again."

Casting himself with tears upon the ground and worshipping, Jacob said: "I will pray the King of Heaven, that I who so deeply sorrow may once again behold them."

Reflecting on those words -- with music or in silence -- may we find strength in the example of Jacob to persevere in the faith of our fathers and never waver in the hope we have placed in the Lord of all. Deo gratias.

Postscript: For more information on Ensemble VIII and their upcoming seasonal performances, please visit their website at