Psalm 6

Next up in the skip and jump series is 6, the first of the so-called penitential psalms. The author is suffering, weak and weary, seeking healing and freedom. Near the end of the song, the author declares relief; “God accepts my prayer” (v.9). Recall a line sung by our male voice quartet recently:

Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy’ (Psalm 126:5)


Orland_di_LassusThe grouping of these seven penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143) evolved over a thousand years or so ago. Many poets and composers have been inspired to build works based on them.

Foremost amongst them was a work by Orlande de Lassus, the major publication Psalmi Davidis poenitentiales of 1584 in Munich. This has been the subject of previous commentary in this blog.

Lassus, Penitential primus
Lassus, Penitential primus

He wrote an extended piece for each of the seven psalms, one in each of the eight modes in use in early times. An eighth piece 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. In Psalm 6, illustrated, he set verse 3 for three voices, verse 4 for four voices and then five voices thereafter.

As with the key penitential Psalm 51, Lassus, Byrd and Schütz all wrote several settings for this psalm or selected verses.

At a more practical level, there are several other sources of easier refrains if it comes up outside the lectionary series. Understandably, Psalm 6 does not make it into Together in song, but Psalms for all seasons has a nice one at 6B (spoken verses), the feature catching my eye being the chord progressions Cm-Bb-Ab-Fm. Another picks up the phrase ‘how long’ that appears in many psalms, including 3, 6 and 13.

2 thoughts on “Psalm 6

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