The penitential psalms

The seven penitential psalms are numbered 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143 (click number to go to the main page for that psalm; 6, 38 and 102 do not feature in the RCL).

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

Why a separate page for this set of psalms? Not because of a focus on penitence and lamentation, though these have their place. Rather, it provides another lens through which to review the extensive content, music and history of the psalms.

History. These seven psalms were first called ‘penitential‘ or confessional in the 6th century CE. Psalm 51, the fourth in the group, was the first to be so-called according to The Nuttall Encyclopaedia.

St. Augustine of Hippo in the early 5th century recognised four as ‘penitential psalms’. The fifty-first Psalm (Miserere) was recited at the close of daily morning service in the primitive Church. Translations of the penitential psalms were undertaken by some of the greatest poets in Renaissance England.

Singing the blues

These psalms and others like Psalm 14, tell us about widespread foolishness, corruption and evil (as if we don’t know). The writers are feeling part of this chaos and painfully regretful, even though they usually finish on a note of trust and hope.

It’s easy to duck these ones and look for a happier alternative. This trend perhaps reflects a modern cultural reluctance to admit to weakness and vulnerability. That of course misses the point of historical poetry of lament. In a blog title on Faith and Theology, The psalms and the blues: a little help from James Baldwin, (25 Sep 2014) author Ben Myers gives valuable advice:

If we think the happy psalms are merely happy and the sad psalms are merely sad, then we’ll also assume that the psalms of vengeance are merely immoral and vindictive, or that psalms of conquest are mere glorifications of military violence – without seeing the whole tragic history that gives rise to such outrageously tenacious expressions of faith. Perhaps we’d have a better ear for the psalms if we remembered that they are the precursors not so much of Victorian hymnody as of the spirituals and the blues. One catches the true spirit of the psalter in the old African American song:

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Nobody knows my sorrow
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Glory hallelujah!

Renaissance music

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 Canberra concert by The Oriana Chorale on 20 May 2018 (review>) provided a sketch of 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. 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. (More on 102 here>)

Another De profundis, this one Gregorian chant in the Liber Usualis.

Psalm 130De profundis clamavi. This Lassus motet is from his major collection of the Pens, with a short motet for each verse, described below.

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.

We look now at the way the penitentials inspired one of the great Renaissance composers.

Roland de Lassus

Lassus (1532-1594) or Orlando di Lasso as he was known in Italy where he spent some years, was one of the towering composers of the late Renaissance in 16th century Europe.


His mastery, breadth and sheer productivity made him famous in his time. Dynamic and emotional by nature, Lassus in his music strove for an engaging rhetorical, pictorial and dramatic interpretation of the text.

The other great composers of the Late Renaissance period are generally recognised as :

  • Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina in Italy,
  • William Byrd and Thomas Tallis in England and
  • Tomas Luis de Victoria in Spain

— all marvellous composers and amongst your webmaster’s favourite fruit.

A Walloon born about 1532 in Franco-Flemish Mons, now in Belgium, he became a fine chorister at an early age. Such was the beauty and purity of his voice that he was reportedly kidnapped three times, the last excursion finding him employed in the courts of Italy where he then learned his trade. By the time he left Italy for Antwerp in his early twenties, he was already publishing books of chansons, madrigals and motets. Another decade of fine composing and singing brought him recognition and, by 1564, to Munich, where he spent the rest of his fruitful life. The listing of his compositions and publications is staggering.

We now look at three of Lassus’ settings for two of the psalms, 51 and 105.

Psalm 51

Psalm 51 is widely used during Lent. It seems to have attracted musicians like bees to honey. Even our familiar book the 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. Lassus wrote two motets on Psalm 51, both using that opening line: ‘Have mercy on me, O God’ in Latin:

  • Miserere mei Deus: the blockbuster which is part of the Penitential series
  • Miserere mei Domine: a later much shorter motet in four voices; we presented this on both 15 and 22 March 2014.

Miserere mei Deus, in Psalmi Davidis poenitentiales. 

Lassus, Penitential primus
Lassus, Penitential primus. Click to enlarge. Google books.

This longer work, published in 1584 but written much earlier, is the more famous one.  The full work, including all seven penitential psalms, is set mainly for 5 and 6 voices but includes motets for 2 or 3 voices.

Here is a relevant and effusive entry on the major work from Wikipedia:

Lassus’s setting of the seven Penitential Psalms of David (Psalmi Davidis poenitentiales) is one of the most famous collections of psalm settings of the entire Renaissance. The counterpoint is free, avoiding the pervasive imitation of the Netherlanders such as Gombert, and occasionally using expressive devices foreign to Palestrina. As elsewhere, Lassus strives for emotional impact, and uses a variety of texture and care in text-setting towards that end. The final piece in the collection, his setting of the De profundis (Psalm 129/130), is considered by many scholars to be one of the high-water marks of Renaissance polyphony, ranking alongside the two settings of the same text by Josquin des Prez.

1611 woodcut of Josquin des Prez, copied from a now-lost oil painting done during his lifetime. Source: Wikimedia commons
1611 woodcut of Josquin des Prez, copied from a now-lost oil painting done during his lifetime. Source: Wikimedia commons

Interestingly, there are not seven but eight long pieces in Lassus’ full set, one for each of the eight modes in use in early times. (The modes were defined by the tonal range, the main chanting note and the final — all very complex.) The eighth was a combination of two psalms of praise (148 and 150) to complete the set.

Each verse of each psalm receives a separate short motet, making in all 136 pieces that could be sung separately. Modern performances fill two CDs; try this lovely extract by the Collegium Vocale Gent.

Psalms 1 to 4 (the fourth is Psalm 51) first appeared in a choirbook, a private richly decorated court manuscript in Munich in 1559. The full set, together with an eighth combination of two Laudate psalms, was published in 1584 to wide acclaim by Adam Berg, Lassus’ printer. This full score of each voice part as originally printed is now in the Bavarian State Library in Munich and available on Google books here>. A modern transcription is available, Ed. Charlotte Smith, Delaware Press 1983.

Miserere mei Domine

The shorter piece on the same text but à4 was published the following year. At less than three minutes in duration, this one lasts only one tenth of the major work.

I’d love to do the major work but pragmatism leads us to go Lassus-lite, which is still surely rich enough for our purposes. The modern transcription starts like this:

Miserere Lassus

Here’s a preview sung by the Dresdner Kappellknaben:

Something different: Psalm 130

This psalm, is another song of ascent (psalms 120 to 134). It’s also the sixth of seven penitential psalms.

Whales off Bribie

The song is a powerful statement of the mystery not only of the human condition, with all its faults and frustrations, but also of our access to grace. The first verses get right to it:

Out of the depths I cry to you O God. Hear my voice, incline your ear to my supplications.

Out of the depths surely adds a new dimension to ‘ascent’. The poem recognises that despite our efforts and capacity for good, we will never reach divine standards in behaviour or nature. The psalmist just waits, ‘more than those who watch for the morning’, trusting the divine power will bless with hope (v. 5), love (v. 7) and redemption for Israel (read ‘the people’; vv. 7, 8).

Music. Verse 1 delivers such a strong image that it features prominently in many of the songs and antiphons associated with Psalm 130.

  • In PFAS, for instance, six of seven suggested music options are titled with these words or the idea. (The first, 130A, goes back to one by Martin Luther in 1524.)
  • In SWUC hymn book, TiS No 81 for Psalm 130 begins the verses the same way, but chooses the theme of mercy and redemption for the antiphon. It’s quite a nice setting and should not be overlooked.
  • Following a recommendation by Isaac Everett in The Emergent Psalter, we have often used a folk-style song Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord, by Sinead O’Connor.


This sample of a few setting of the Penitentials demonstrates how seriously composers have taken the informal grouping. While they can be restrained in tone, there is no reason why we need to resort to sack-cloth and ashes every time we sing them. Many songs exhibit a tone more of wonder and thankfulness than despondency.

Music in the Renaissance, Gustave Reed
A history of Western music, D Grout and C Pelisca
Medieval Music, Richard Hoppin.