Motives of Lamentation in Art and Music

by Mareike Janus (Author)

Term Paper 2005 15 Pages




0. Introduction

1. General Thoughts about Lamentation

2. Case Studies
2.1 Music
2.1.1 Acis and Galatea by Georg Friederich Händel
2.1.2 Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell
2.1.3 Venus and Adonis by John Blow
2.1.4 L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi
2.1.5 Lamento d’Ariana by Claudio Monteverdi
2.1.6 Johannes passion by Johann Sebastian Bach
2.2 Art
2.2.1 Lamentation over the dead Christ
2.2.2 Lamentation in Tragic Love Stories

3. Conclusion

0. Introduction

In this essay, it will be tried to examine how lamentation in art and music is handled. The aim will be to find out by which means lamentation is presented to the spectator and which kinds of stereotypes are used in order to clarify the depiction of grief. First, it will be tried to explain what the topic of lamentation is generally about, secondly, the case studies in which different kinds of tragedies that include lamentations will follow. In the music section, it is necessary to shortly summarize the plots of the analysed works to understand the full impact of the lament. First, the worldly tragic love stories in no specific order will be the focus of investigation, before the passion of Christ shall be examined. In the art section, scenes from the stories from the preceding part of the work will be looked at, so that there is no need of retelling the plots.

1. General Thoughts about Lamentation

The terms lamentation and lament derives from the Latin word lamentum [1] and can be equated with expressions such as to mourn, to grieve, to wail, to moan, to weep and to cry. The term lamentation is closely linked with the Italian term lamento that stands for a piece of music in which somebody expresses his grief over something, mainly over another person’s death. The term lamentation when referring to music means in the majority of cases “a vocal piece based on a mournful text, often built over a descending tetrachord ostinato and common in cantatas and operas of the Baroque period. Since the late 17th century also instrumental pieces with wailing nature were sometimes named lamento, especially works by J. J. Frohberger and J. S. Bach.[2] Lamentation in art is represented just as good as in music: Since the medieval and renaissance times one of the most often depicted topics is the “Lamentation over the Dead Christ”. Painters, sculptors and other artist grew never tired of illustrating Christ and his mourners, because of the importance of the incident of his death for the Christian community.

But not only Christians were depicted in the state of lamenting by the western artists, whose paintings will be discussed later, mythological topics of mourning can be found as well.

The motivation for the never ending interest of artists and composers in a subject matter like

lamentation originates most likely in the fact that the emotion of grief is particularly human. In addition, grief is an existential feeling from which not a soul is prevented; that is why lament forms a major issue for both artists and men.

Lamentation itself is the act of giving expression to one’s feelings of grief; this can be done in multiple ways, for example by means of gestures and stance as well as through sounds and melodies. In consequence, the expression of lamentation can be perceived by others, though the origin of the act is actually an individual private emotion. However, in music and art, this feeling has to be made public in order to serve the purpose of art which is, simplified, the transfer of expression from the artist to the spectator. As a consequence, the paradox element in the depiction of laments in art and music is that the personal lament becomes a spectacle. This has an effect on how artists decide to present the subject: in terms of a setting of a musical lamentation, the real feeling with its negative and not pleasant implications stays in the background and is transformed into something much more beautiful which still has a sad subtext - this is the contradiction of theatre. In terms of art, there is no such paradox to be seen: in the depiction of mourning and wailing people prevails an approach orientated to reality. As an attempt to explain why that is so, there could be stated that painters try to depict what they see in real life; visual impressions are the source of paintings, being again made into something visual. In respect of music, there is one more obstacle to be transgressed: what real life provides has to be converted into medium apart from real life; into music.

Despite its passionate character, lament in theatre and opera was not primarily a ventilation of emotion. In Baroque times, the lament was a purposeful act, specifically intended to serve the end result known as catharsis. Plato's views on the subject found their reflection in the aesthetic theories of the 17th century. Greek tragedy offers its own examples of the lament and nearer to hand were the popular and accessible 'Heroides' of Ovid.[3] The often suggested effect of dramatic performances named catharsis “leads to release from negative affect, whereby the eliciting of emotions is seen as a means of purifying related bad memories.”[4] Thus, Catharsis is a form of emotional cleansing which was first defined by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. It originally referred to the sensation that would ideally overcome an audience upon finishing a tragedy.

The fact that there existed those who could suffer a worse fate than them was to them a relief, and at the end of the play, they felt ekstasis (Greek for astonishment). While seemingly related to Schadenfreude it is not, in the sense that the audience is not intentionally led to feel happy in light of others’ misfortunes; in an invariant sense, their spirits are refreshed through having greater appreciation for life.[5]

Catharsis can be also reached by means of visual art: “Visual arts can serve the goal to record, to decorate, to inform, to conceptualize, to inspire, to lament, to manipulate and to provide catharsis.”[6]

Subsequently, the question comes up how laments are presented in art and music more specifically and with which means lamentation is presented. To elucidate this subject matter some example are picked out of the vast subject area that will be examined in part two and that must stand for the whole.

2. Case Studies

2.1 Music

2.1.1 Acis and Galatea

The first piece of music that is going to be investigated is the Baroque pastoral masque or opera Acis and Galatea in two acts by Georg Friedrich Händel to words by John Gay and others.[7] The main source for the libretto is Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

In the masque from the year 1718 the pastoral setting becomes obvious when in the first act nymphs and shepherds, forming the chorus, take delight in “the pleasure of the plains”[8]. The sea nymph Galatea is in love with the shepherd Acis. Until the beginning of the second act, nothing can harm their twosome bliss, but the entering of the character Polyphemus who is depicted as a part-comic figure destroys the peace: At this point, the chorus warn the lovers of the “monster Polypheme”[9], who adores Galatea very much and who takes up a fight with the much weaker Acis to win Galatea’s love (although she has already rejected him). Then, the tragedy happens as Polyphemus after the discovery of Acis’ and Galatea’s mutual love hurls a rock against Acis with which he is killed. “The chorus mourn, joined by Galatea, but they remind her of her deity – she can transform him into a stream. As she exerts her powers the chorus celebrate his watery immortality.”[10]

The comic presentation of Polyphemus lessens in no way the depth of the pathos with which the death of Acis and the grief of Galatea are depicted. The scene of Acis’ death is introduced with a duet of the lovers in which they affirm their love, but which turns out to be a trio when Polyphemus interferes after a few lines and expresses his uncontrollable emotions in a grotesque and harsh way. This intervention increases the tension for the listener up to the point where Polyphemus’ rage bursts with jealousy, he throws the rock at Acis and crushes him beneath it, singing: “Fly swift, thou massy ruin, fly/ Die, presumptuous Acis. Die!”[11] After this effective build-up to the climax of the opera, Acis calls upon Galatea and the gods as he is dying. The Chorus enter into lamentation at this point with the words “Mourn all ye muses”[12] and the “groans, cries and howlings”[13] in the song are expressed by dint of the minor key, the melody’s sadness and a subliminal chromatic descending line, sometimes only heard in the orchestra but at some moments also found in the chorus’s melody. Chromatic descending lines are one of the main means of expression for sadness and grief, especially in the form of the lamento-bass, which will be investigated later in this work in the course of Dido’s lament.


[1] Brockhaus– Enzyklopädie in 24 Bänden, (Mannheim, 181987), XIII, p. 21

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.splendidcentury.com/le_musicheprogramnotes.html, 13.12.04

[4] http://oss.sagepub.com/cgi/content/refs/25/5/797, 12.12.04

[5] http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/Catharsis, 12.12.04

[6] http://www.pacific.edu/cop/art/LKasser.html, 13. 12.04

[7] Stanley Sadie, Acis and Galatea, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy ( 22.11.04), <http://www.grovemusic.com>

[8] Ibid.

[9] CD booklet, Georg Friedrich Handel: Acis and Galatea; Robert King and the King’s Consort; Hyperion Records Limited, London (1988), p. 8

[10] Stanley Sadie, Acis and Galatea, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy ( 22.11.04), <http://www.grovemusic.com>

[11] CD booklet, Georg Friedrich Handel: Acis and Galatea; Robert King and the King’s Consort; Hyperion Records Limited, London (1988), p. 9

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.


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Motives Lamentation Music Narrative Emotion Johann Sebastian Bach Johannes passion Claudio Monteverdi Lamento d’Ariana Acis Galatea Venus Adonis Händel Haendel L’Orfeo Henry Purcell John Blow


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    Mareike Janus (Author)

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Title: Motives of Lamentation in Art and Music