Two voices emerge for the reader during this extended lament. A sad David seems to be suffering from a degenerative illness. Yet in the midst of distress and weariness, his Voice 1 can yet find a peaceful and somehow comforting image for his isolation and worry:
I am like an owl of the wilderness, a little owl of the waste places. I lie awake like a lonely bird on a housetop. (vs. 6, 7)
A more optimistic David Voice 2 then asserts the endurance and longevity of the divine presence, compared with the brevity of human life. The psalm is ‘recorded for generations to come’ so that, first, ‘people yet unborn may praise God’ (v. 18); and secondly, that ‘children shall live secure, their offspring established in your presence.’ (v. 28)
The opening verse (Domine, exaudi / Hear my prayer, let my cry come to you — see illustration) is popular with composers as a simple and neutral prayer of access. Thomas Tomkins wrote a trio (published 1668) which would please any small group. He also composed an arrangement for verse 13.
This being one of the seven penitential psalms, the fifth in fact, we find major work by early composers like the Italian Giovanni Croce, follower of Gabrieli in the grand style; and Orlando de Lassus, whose Psalmi Davidis Poenitentialis of 1584 is mentioned elsewhere.
For 102, as usual, Lassus has written a fleet of separate small motets, one for each verse. He captures the attention of the listener by entering with five voices in full flight for verse 1, but then rather playfully employs a duet for verse 2, a trio for verse 3, quartet for 4 and back to 5 voices for v. 5. He then proceeds through the rest of the 28 verses changing the number of singers. Verse 18 mentioned above, for example, which starts ‘Scribantur haec / Let this be recorded‘ is sung gently by a duo of tenor voices, almost like a recitative.
By the last verse, with the following Gloria Patri as a separate movement, he is back to five parts. Then the Sicut erat (As it was in the beginning) splits the cantus (treble) into two parts for a powerful 6-part finale, the voices each entering sequentially. Incidentally, in many early manuscripts, this Gloria was not written in full but signified by the last six vowels of saeculorum Amen — E u o u A e.
This technique of Lassus is worth remembering for the small group convener. Depending on how many voices you have, you can always find a mini-motet of one verse or another to suit the occasion and available resources.
Like Psalm 101, this song does not appear in the lectionary, or in NCH. In other sources:
- The only suggestion made in PFAS is the Taizé chorus ‘O Lord hear my prayer’, which as mentioned above is a quote from v.1 — and several other psalms.
- Everett‘s syncopated refrain in TEP combines verses 3 and 12: ‘My days pass away like smoke; you endure through the generations’.
- TiS 63 surprises me by presenting a short, singable paraphrase, admittedly only from Voice 2 in the happy end of things, by Christopher Willcock SJ, with a simple refrain arranged by JS Bach. It also provides an attached litany for the sick and the dying. (102B)