A Pen of Penitentials, 20 May 18

Psalm 6 in The Maastricht Hours, 14th C in which the penitential psalms are grouped

What is the collective noun for a collection of the Penitential Psalms?

A pen, a pinch, pack, pouch, pluck, pocket-full or penn’th of Penitentials? It’s certainly not a pride, preen or prance. Given that one of them is Ps. 130 Out of the depths, perhaps it’s a Plunge of Penitentials. Let’s stick with Pen.

Whatever it be, a forthcoming concert to be presented by The Oriana Chorale on 20 May provides a wonderful opportunity to music lovers and psalm followers in the Canberra region to sample some of the best interpretations of all seven Penitentials by Renaissance composers:

Psalm 6 Domine, ne in furore tuo. Claudio Monteverdi’s setting of this first Penitential is for six voices. Late Renaissance writers enjoyed reflecting the meaning of the words in the music and this is no exception. Singers enter in turbulent runs and sharp phrases to support the emotional disturbance in the first line “O Lord, rebuke me not in thy indignation, nor chastise me in thy wrath.”

Entry of lower parts in Monteverdi’s Psalm 6

Psalm 32 Beati, iniquitatis by Giovanni Croce (1557-1609), in two parts and again for six voices. The motet begins sedately but becomes more urgent and antiphonal at various points according to the text — which in fact diverges considerably from that of the psalm.

Psalm 38 Jubilate Deo. More six-part singing but this time in quite a different style at the hand of Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1613). His unusual phrases and harmonic progressions challenge singer and audience alike but add immeasurably to the quality of works emanating from this fertile period. Note lack of bar lines or any obvious cohesion between parts in the following example:

Gesualdo, never an easy sing but worth it

Psalm 51 Miserere mei Deus. Oriana’s conductor Robyn Mellor turns to a nice setting by Giovanni Gabrieli of this popular centre-piece of the Pen of Penitentials.

Psalm 102 Domine ex audi orationem meam, by Orazio Vecchi (1550-1605) in the style of the Venice school, featuring two choirs. (Post on 102 here>)

Psalm 130De profundis clamavi. This Lassus motet is from his major collection of the Pens, with a short motet for each verse, described elsewhere (See for example the Penitential page.).

Psalm 143 Domine, exaudi orationem meam, Melchior Franck (1580-1639) writing for three choirs, twelve voices in all, creates a mobile and reflective imagery for this final Pen.

A classic mass by Giovanni Pierluigi da PalestrinaMissa pro defunctis in five voices forms the major single work for this concert. This fine mass, with the usual liturgical elements starting with an Introitus and the Kyrie, has many moments of pure beauty. Acclaimed local women’s group Polifemy join us to sing sections of the plainchant between movements. This will be a lovely window into the long-standing and authentic musical practices of earlier times.

To leaven what might be considered a fairly deep plunge, the fiery Ps 96 Cantate Domino (95 in the Vulgate) by Monteverdi concludes the program (see full order below).

A full programme of this richly harmonised and beautiful music may seem a little sedate and soporific for audiences used to being entertained by son et lumière. However, the concert is intended to give pleasure by revealing the range and depth of just a few of the many wonderful motets by composers around 1600; presenting a beautiful Palestrina mass; providing a focus on the Penitential Psalms, as well as showcasing music from an era that some have called the High Renaissance.


Concert programme order
1) Palestrina, Missa Pro Defunctis
2) Vecchi, Psalm 102: Domine exaudi orationem meam
3) Gesualdo, Psalm 38 Domine Deus
4) Gabrieli, Psalm 51: Miserere mei Deus
5) Croce, Psalm 32, Beati, qui iniquitatis
6) Lassus, Psalm 130, De profundis clamavi
7) Monteverdi, Psalm 6 Domine, ne in furore tuo
8) Franck, Psalm 143, Domine exaudi
9) Monteverdi, Psalm 95, Cantate Domino Canticum Novum

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