Psalm 107 and 51, 15 March 2015

A scary story of serpents in the wilderness from Numbers in the previous lectionary reading is a good precursor to the psalm’s theme of divine mercy experienced in time of stress. The selection from Psalm 107 invites the reader to be thankful for everlasting mercies. An additional dimension is added in the next reading:

By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8)

The Lenten theme is continued in Psalm 51 which we hear the following Sunday 22 March:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.  (Ps 51:1)


The psalms are superb at crossing boundaries of many types; but this one reads well in immigrant Australia, as in many parts of a shifting world:

Let the redeemed of God say so, those redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south (vs. 2, 3)

Whether or not we acknowledge divine agency in these peregrinations, we have certainly gathered from all parts of the world to this wide brown land. Aboriginal people have gathered from time to time from all points of the compass since their arrival in this country perhaps 60,000 years ago.Kimberley landscape

You will have to read 107 for yourself. As noted at the outset, we look ahead and observe that a similar song, Psalm 51, is on the menu for 22 March 2015. This is one of the ‘penitential psalms’. The psalms loosely grouped under this label are spread randomly throughout the book (full list here>).


1611 woodcut of Josquin des Prez, copied from a now-lost oil painting done during his lifetime. Source: Wikimedia commons
1611 woodcut of Josquin des Prez, copied from a now-lost oil painting done during his lifetime. Source: Wikimedia commons

Psalm 51 seems to have attracted musicians like bees to honey. Even our familiar book the Psalms for all seasons excels itself and produces more that a baker’s dozen of songs just for this psalm.

There are dozens more on the web. Amongst this plethora of settings, the collection of penitential psalms from 1570 by Orlando di Lasso has always caught my attention, if only by reputation and delight at most works from the pen of Lassus — see an earlier post here>.

Lassus wrote two motets on Psalm 51. We present the shorter motet in four voices on both 15 and 22 March.

Here’s a preview sung by the Dresdner Kappellknaben:

… though nothing can touch the joy of live music sung by and for friends; so please do come and listen as Bruce and Jon lead our time together on 15 and 22 March. Visitors, indeed any sight-reading singers out there, welcome. We rehearse Saturday at 5.

More on Lassus and the psalms

Biographical information was provided in this blog last year as his setting for Psalm 105 Confitemini Domino recurred several times.

As stated above, Lassus wrote two motets on Psalm 51, both using that opening line: ‘Have mercy on me, O God’. Being in the customary Latin of the day, the title of the motet to be sung this Sunday is Miserere mei Domine: the earlier blockbuster is Miserere mei Deus.

Miserere mei Deus, in Psalmi Davidis poenitentiales. 

Lassus, Penitential primus
Lassus, Penitential primus. Click to enlarge. Google books.

This longer work, published in 1584 but written much earlier, is the more famous one.  Including all seven penitential psalms, it is set mainly for 5 and 6 voices but includes motets for 2 or 3 voices.

Here is a relevant and effusive entry on the major work from Wikipedia:

Lassus’s setting of the seven Penitential Psalms of David (Psalmi Davidis poenitentiales) is one of the most famous collections of psalm settings of the entire Renaissance. The counterpoint is free, avoiding the pervasive imitation of the Netherlanders such as Gombert, and occasionally using expressive devices foreign to Palestrina. As elsewhere, Lassus strives for emotional impact, and uses a variety of texture and care in text-setting towards that end. The final piece in the collection, his setting of the De profundis (Psalm 129/130), is considered by many scholars to be one of the high-water marks of Renaissance polyphony, ranking alongside the two settings of the same text by Josquin des Prez.

These seven psalms were first called ‘penitential‘ or confessional in the 6th century CE. Psalm 51, the fourth in the group, was the first to be so-called according to The Nuttall Encyclopaedia.

Interestingly, there are not seven but eight long pieces in Lassus’ full set, one for each of the eight modes in use in early times. (The modes were defined by the tonal range, the main chanting note and the final — all very complex.) The eighth was a combination of two psalms of praise (148 and 150) to complete the set. Each verse of each psalm receives a separate short motet, making in all 136 pieces that could be sung separately. Modern performances fill two CDs; try this lovely extract by the Collegium Vocale Gent.

Psalms 1 to 4 (the fourth is Psalm 51) first appeared in a choirbook, a private richly decorated court manuscript in Munich in 1559. The full set, together with an eighth combination of two Laudate psalms, was published in 1584 to wide acclaim by Adam Berg, Lassus’ printer. This full score of each voice part as originally printed is now in the Bavarian State Library in Munich and available on Google books here>. A modern transcription is available, Ed. Charlotte Smith, Delaware Press 1983.

Miserere mei Domine

The shorter piece on the same text but à4 was published the following year. At less than three minutes in duration, this one lasts only one tenth of the major work.

I’d love to do the major work but pragmatism leads us to go Lassus-lite, which is still surely rich enough for our purposes. The modern transcription starts like this:

Miserere Lassus

10 thoughts on “Psalm 107 and 51, 15 March 2015

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.