Psalm 117

Ps117 BL Harley603f60
Illustration for Ps. 117 (CXVI in the Vulgate) in an English 11th century Psalter. Script Carolignian minuscule. Click to enlarge. Image: British Library Harley 603 f.60r

Psalm 117 is a surprise on several counts.

Short and sweet

First, as the shortest psalm in the bible, it consists of but two verses — and just two songs later the longest psalm 119 sports 176 verses!

These two verses are nevertheless important ones, presenting statements of the universality of all peoples or nations, and the eternal core of divine love and faithfulness. Psalms for All Seasons says they are ‘two of the most lovely and weighty images in the entire Psalter’.(p.737)

Second, even though the psalm is omitted from the Lectionary, yet the settings in our psalters and lists of classical settings online are legion — two in TiS, six in PFAS and nearly 60 online in CPDL. Brevity, rejoicing and simplicity all add to the allure of this little gem, a gift for song-writers it would seem.

So what did they write?

  • PFAS has several Taiwanese, French, Spanish and English options.
  • Together in Song has an Isaac Watts hymn and the Taizé refrain in PFAS.
  • In the more classical arena composers range from Anon. and Bach to Victoria and Vivaldi, with many names in between both famous and obscure
  • Such writers frequently chose the Latin text Laudate Dominum omnes gentes.
Ps 117 (116 in Vulgate) melismatic chant
Ps. 117 (116 in Vulgate Missal) melismatic chant, Solesmes Monastery

The long and the short of it

As might be expected, composers have resorted to various ploys to make a substantial song out of verses that take about 15 seconds to recite:

  • Medieval composers would have just resorted to melismata, singing many notes to each syllable, as does the Gregorian chant still in use today (illustration above)
  • Or their manuscript illuminators just filled in with mysterious drawings (illustration at top of page)
  • Classical composers were quite used to repetition, imitation, counterpoint, inversion and various other tricks to stretch one phrase into a page of music.
  • They could add verses from somewhere else then a few pages of Alleluias — JS Bach by this means manages 14 pages in one of his motets.
  • PFAS points out that some of the shorter choruses can be sung in different languages — how is your pronunciation?
  • Isaac Everett in TEP suggests ‘it could become a full-on jam session’, very appealing to this cantor
  • Some, including Everett’s, can be sung as a round.

Size may matter in some domains. David, by both harp and sling-shot, abundantly demonstrated otherwise.

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