Psalm 4, 18 Apr 21

Little proof is needed that the psalms were written as songs, and benefit immensely from the sweet meeting of poetry and music. Here it is anyway. This psalm’s sub-title advises the leader (for the first time in the Psalter in fact): ‘With stringed instruments.’

Interval at an early music concert, a mass by Orazio Vecchi including psalms, in Voorschoten, the Netherlands. Note the absence of a spike in these viols: the instrument is supported by the player’s knees not the floor – hence ‘da gamba‘.

In Psalm 4 the author, said rather speculatively to be David, is trying to connect with the source of forgiveness and mercy. Finding a central theme is difficult. The verses slip from one prayer to another — assurance, anger at evil, asking for help and blessing, gladness (‘in my heart, more than when grain and wine abound’) and finally, peaceful sleep and meditation in repose.

It was no doubt this last theme (in verse 4 and the final verse 8) that prompted the allocation of Psalm 4 to the ancient service of compline, the last prayers of the day before retiring:

I will both lie down and sleep in peace;
    for you alone, O God, make me lie down in safety.
Psalm 4 begins in the Bosworth Psalter, in Latin with Old english interlinear and marginal gloss. The red letters read: IIII in finem in carminibus psalmus david, ‘4. Unto the end, in verses. A psalm for David.’ British Library MS 37517, 10/11th century.

Early music settings abound. A few of them can be found by searching for the Latin title Cum invocarem exaudivit me. Others with the peaceful sleep idea will appear under a title such as In pace in idipsum.

In 1692, baroque French composer Michel Delalande (1657-1726) wrote for this psalm one of his elaborate great motets, a form favoured by King Louis XIV — and therefore by Delalande. He rolled it out for the King’s pleasure at the royal chapel of Versailles, undoubtedly fulfilling the psalm’s sub-titular recommendation, perhaps to excess. Around the same time, contemporaries Henry Desmarest and Marc-Antoine Charpentier composed similarly impressive works.

A trio for equal voices is a useful addition to the library when short of singers. So In pace in idipsum by Orlando di Lasso (from his ‘Magnum opus musicum’, München, 1604) is an asset:

Psalm 4 by Lassus, incipit of the entering superius (tenor) voice shown

In more modern settings the following are notable:

  • PFAS has two responsorial settings in 4B, one by Anthony Teague 1986, one adapted by John Bell from a translation from Malawi. Both adapt the last verse (8 – see above) for the people’s refrain, best suited for an evening service.
  • The Emergent Psalter has a similar approach but uses verse 1 (Answer me when I call). As is his wont, Isaac Everett employs some more unusual and edgy harmonies based on an E flat major ninth that appeal to jazz sensibilities.
  • New Century Hymnal offers a characteristically modern and interesting harmonisation of a simple melody by Peter Niedmann. (See also NCH 41)

At Woden Valley this Sunday. A male voice quartet leads us in TiS No 2, a Gelineau setting. This style of responsorial chant was designed in part by Joseph Gelineau in 1953. Typically nice and simple, this one does not include all lectionary verses. Verse 6 is used as the refrain (‘let your face shine upon us’).

The true Gelineau system is written for a solo or unison chant, singing to a regular beat but in ‘sprung rhythm’ (to accommodate variable numbers of syllables) with organ backing. Addicted to four-part harmony as we are, we shall adapt the setting accordingly. This actually poses some challenges singing free rhythm over an even walking accompaniment notation. That is part of the fun of the ride.

2 thoughts on “Psalm 4, 18 Apr 21

  1. Thanks Brendan, the Psalm has become one of my favourite parts of the service. I appreciate the effort you put into research and preparation. Many thanks, Love to you and Helen, Dalma

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