Psalm 113: Lift the needy

‘God raises the poor from the dust.’ (7)

Psalms 113 to 119 are known as the Hallel (praise) psalms. In the Jewish (especially Ashkenazi) tradition, 113 was used as a prayer in the morning Shacharit (from the Hebrew for dawn), as well as before the Passover meal. A thousand years or so later, the psalm has migrated in the Catholic tradition to the evening service of vespers.

Ps113 Harley MS603
Psalm 113 and servants rejoicing, Harley psalter in the British Library, MS 603

Many parables in the New Testament propose an inversion of social climbing rules; the first shall be last, the proud shall be humbled, the outcast preferred, all you need is love. After an introductory song of praise — in this case without invoking the usual evidence of mighty deeds — the writer of Psalm 113 recorded a poetic precursor to this ‘foolish’ value system quoted above, and continuing:

God raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, and give the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. (7-9)

🎵

Tomas Luis de Victoria again wrote two settings for this psalm, a motet and a vesper psalm. Both titles start with Laudate pueri / Praise ye servants. The title of the motet for double choir, adds Domine. Victoria’s series of psalms specifically for vespers or evensong, often set for every second verse, includes 113. Various luminaries in early times devised psalmodies in the Roman rite for each of the services of the hours. Between five and (more recently) two psalms were to be sung in each evening service. In most such schemata, the vespers psalms were drawn from Psalms 109 to 147, with the exception of the longer 118.

There are many enticing classical settings besides these. These vespers psalms and hymns have provided food for many great composers such as Monteverdi, Vivaldi, and Rachmaninov whose vespers in the Eastern Orthodox All-night Vigil has been mentioned in Psalms 103-4.

In the regular sources used at South Woden:

  • TiS unusually presents a good option, at least for a reasonably competent sight-reader. It’s no surprise that it is by Christopher Willcock.
  • NCH also has an attractive refrain by Vérne de la Peña.
  • PFAS has two songs whose refrains are both quite long for use without prior familiarity or rehearsal.

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