Psalm 51, 23 October 2015

A note for the locals

This Sunday with Arto at the helm, we turn not to the set psalm (65) but to one of the popular and prominent penitential psalms, 51, often used on Ash Wednesday. This song reveals a contrite David after the prophet Nathan courageously confronted him over his lapse of appropriate behaviour with Bathsheba. (2 Samuel 11)

Many verses are familiar by virtue of their frequent use in liturgies and prayers. This, for example, from the first 1549 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, still in use in the rite for morning prayer:

Officiant: O Lord, open thou our lips.
People: And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.

Then there is the hyssop in verse 7. In the Latin it begins: Asperges me. (see the chant extract shown from the Liber Usualis). This is not an admission by David that he has an unusual personality condition, but:ps51-aspergesme-lu

Cleanse me with hyssop and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.

The keen reader will find several previous posts on this song, such as this one in 2015. (see also the Index Books 2-4.)

Psalm 65

For those who wish to review the set psalm 65, there is much to be enjoyed. Just home from a ten day yacht delivery from the Whitsundays complete with some ‘challenging’ winds, for example, I was struck by these lines:

You answer us with awesome and righteous deeds, God our Saviour, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas … who stilled the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, and the turmoil of the nations. (Ps 65:5, 7)

For more, see the post for when we sang Psalm 65 three years ago, 27 October 2013.


However, back to Psalm 51, for which there are dozens of settings. As mentioned previously, there are some lovely motets from years gone by, such as those by Lassus (who wrote four for this psalm or bits of it), Byrd, Praetorius and Victoria. However, singers will probably not be available at short notice to render these songs as they should be.

So we turn to a responsorial setting in Psalms for All Seasons 51G. The first refrain is a simple but pleasant tune that has the advantage that it is easily adaptable as a vehicle for the cantor’s verses. The alternative refrains are also interesting but again, need a little preparation. One is a traditional Urdu song with characteristic tonality and ornamentation. Peaceful moonlight at seaAlternative 2 is South African.

So overall there is plenty of scope and variety for those who enjoy it, from early music to exotic sounds. Therein one frequently finds peace from the raging winds.

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