Psalm 51: 21 March 2021

[At Woden Valley this week: scroll right down

Psalm 51 is the fourth or middle of the so-called ‘Penitential Psalms’. The subtitle is instructive: “To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” So this is a sincere prayer by David seeking forgiveness and mercy, as he regrets his wicked behaviour getting Bathsheba’s husband out of the way. (2 Samuel 11) The song begins:

King David plays the soothing harp, perhaps feeling penitential

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

The brave prophet Nathan called him out. How would you like to be in Nathan’s shoes? Just pop in to King David plucking his lyre in the grand throne room, and tell him straight that he really blew it. Time to really face the music. Result: a song of penitence — and Nathan kept his head.

David realised that God would always ‘desire truth in the inward being’; therefore he asks that mercy will also ‘teach me wisdom in my secret heart.’ (v. 6)

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:

Cantor: O Lord, open thou our lips.
People: And our mouth shall show forth thy praise
Extract of Psalm 51:7 Gregorian chant in Liber Usualis

Then there is the hyssop in verse 7, which in the Latin begins: Asperges me. This is not an admission by David that he has an unusual personality condition. He is praying: “Cleanse me with hyssop and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.”  It goes on in sombre tone until a glimmer of light in verse 12:

Blues singer Robert Johnson

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit

All too gloomy for you? Take a look at singing the blues in the page on Psalm 14: The justice blues>


For centuries this text has been a popular choice for composers and liturgists. Often sung during Lent, on Ash Wednesday and Tenebrae services, and concluding vespers or other ‘Propers’. Fragments appear frequently in matins and other prayers: “Create in me a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

Psalm 51 seems to have attracted musicians like bees to honey. Even our favoured source Psalms for All Seasons excels itself and produces more that a baker’s dozen of songs just for this psalm. There are dozens more on the web.

Amongst this plethora of settings, Lassus wrote four motets on Psalm 51: for two voices (a setting of verse 9 alone), four (setting verse 3), five to six, and finally nine voices. Apart from the duet, they use that opening line: ‘Have mercy on me, O God’. Being in the customary Latin of the day, the title of the shorter motet for four voices is Miserere mei Domine.

An earlier Lassus blockbuster is Miserere mei Deus. This much more ambitious setting published in 1570 is part of a collection of all the seven penitential psalms, with a couple of extra psalms of praise thrown in to make eight major works in the boxed set. It’s a rich and varied collection with one motet for each of the 136 verses included, most in 5 or 6 parts.

Psalm 51
Detail of voice entries to Psalm 51:20 by Lassus

An example (shown at left) is the A minor homophonic entry chord for the last verse of Psalm IV — that is, the fourth of the Penitentials. Note that here it is numbered verse 20 as in the Vulgate version, 19 in ours: Then you will be pleased with the sacrifice.

Carnival of animals?

The modern chorister may be baffled by the part titles in the illustration, CATQB.

Maybe Lassus, imagining the dreary experience cooped up below decks in Noah’s ark, wrote this so that whenever animals go on another long trip, they can sing in the back of the ark/bus – the lettering against each staff clearly includes Cats, Aardvarks, Tigers and Bears. In the 6-part verses, the top line splits into CI and CII, perchance for Cats and Cheetahs.

There are a few missing of course — the serpent is off chewing dust (Isaiah 65) and others are lying peacefully together somewhere, the wolf dwelling with the lamb, the Leopard lying down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling off together somewhere. (Isaiah 11:6)

But here’s the problem. What did Lassus have in mind for the Q? Here in Terra Australis, especially to Western Australians, the Quokka of Rottnest Island immediately springs to mind. Had the maestro ever heard of this modest but noble animal; and indeed, was it on the Ark?

Psalm 51 ‘Miserere mei’ in the 10th C. Bosworth Psalter, British Library MS 37517 f32r. A gloss in Old English has been added later in the margins of the original Latin Text.

And while we are spinning yarns, there’s Mozart and the Vatican. In Latin, the psalm begins ‘Miserere‘ meaning ‘Have mercy’. A quite stunning and famous setting by Gregorio Allegri was written for two choirs in about 1630, to be sung in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.  It was not to be sung elsewhere under pain of excommunication.

The story goes that 14 year-old Mozart (1756-91) heard it and later accurately transcribed it from memory, leading to its free publication. Young Wolfgang was later summoned to the pope to receive congratulations on this musical feat, rather than admonishment. Listen to this version by The Sixteen:

At Woden Valley this week, a male voice quartet reconvenes to convey the gravity and hope felt by David in Psalm 51. We sing a refrain by David Isele and tone in Psalms for All Seasons 51G. The congregation sings the refrain, the words for which are drawn from the last verse — not in fact included in the Lectionary selection but a good message:

Refrain from Psalms for All Seasons 51G, music by David Isele, c. 1979 GIA Publications Inc.

In this rearrangement of the piano music by the author to more suit male voice quartet, we retain the final ninth chord on ‘spirit’ where the third voice sings the 9th, or 2nd since there is no 7th. I presume that’s what Mr Isele had in mind — it’s a nice touch of colour. If it’s a little outside for you, treat it as a suspension and resolve.

One thought on “Psalm 51: 21 March 2021

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.