The third of the seven Penitentials, this psalm is glass half empty — no, make that a quarter — through to verse 14. The opening verses mirror those of the first Penitential Psalm, 6. The singer regrets failure, inadequacy, illness and a thorough-going weariness. Then comes the half full, and an urgent request for comfort:
For in you O God I have fixed my hope; you will answer (v.15)
Do not forsake me, or be distant; make haste to help me O God, my salvation. (21, 22)
So this could be a song for Lent, or just when you are ill or feeling low.
There’s not much music to help you out in the hymn books — 38 and 39 are not included in the Lectionary. Our regular psalters give you one or two tunes. However, as other blogs have noted, the Penitential Psalms seems to have been de rigueur for the serious composers of yesteryear; Byrd, Dowland, Gesualdo and Lassus all lined for 38; and many more went to town on the middle one, Psalm 51. (Others are 32, 102, 130 and 143.) Producing a compendium of all seven won gold.
It is also quite demanding — note the absence of bar lines and the apparent independence of individual voices in the illustration. Cadences are sometimes surprising and unpredictable, often passionate.
Gesualdo was both creative and cruel. He famously murdered his wife and lover when he caught them in the act. He was not convicted, but according to the current Wikipedia entry:
The evidence that Gesualdo was tortured by guilt for the remainder of his life is considerable, and he may have given expression to it in his music.
The work he wrote for Psalm 38 confines its attention to the prayer for help in the final verses quoted above; but it sounds as though he may have felt the pull of the Penitential Psalms stronger than most.