Psalm 117: Enduring love

‘Great is God’s love, and the faithfulness endures forever.’ (2)

Psalm 117 is a surprise on several counts. First, as the shortest psalm in the bible, it consists of but two verses — and just two songs later the longest psalm 119 sports 176 verses! These two verses are nevertheless important ones, presenting statements of the universality of all peoples or nations, and the eternal core of divine love and faithfulness. Psalms for All Seasons says they are ‘two of the most lovely and weighty images in the entire Psalter’.1

Two verses may not have been enough to gain entry for 117 into the Lectionary, but short and sweet yet makes an easy grab for a resounding song:

1 Praise God, all you nations! Extol God, all you peoples!
2 For great is the steadfast love toward us,
and the faithfulness of God endures forever.

Second, even though the psalm is omitted from the Lectionary, yet the settings in our psalters and lists of classical settings online are legion — two in TiS, six in PFAS and nearly 60 online in CPDL. Brevity, rejoicing and simplicity all add to the allure of this little gem, a gift for song-writers. Here are some modern offerings:

  • PFAS has several Taiwanese, French, Spanish and English options.
  • Together in Song has an Isaac Watts hymn and the Taizé refrain in PFAS.
  • In the classical arena composers range from Anon. and Bach to Victoria and Vivaldi, with many names in between both famous and obscure
  • Such writers frequently chose the Latin text Laudate Dominum omnes gentes.

Thus, paradoxically, 117 has been a great favourite amongst composers. CPDL lists around a hundred settings. These range from little duets through a bunch of SATBs, up to a full 12-part motet that manages to squeeze 17 pages of music out of two verses.

Just search Youtube for “Laudate domunum omnes gentes” to find a plethora of delights, remembering that the opening phrase “Laudate dominum” is shared with several text entries, including this psalm, 146, 148 and 150.

What is your preference? Bach and Byrd, through Tallis and Telemann, to Victoria and Vivaldi? What delights, and these are just the Big Names. I read somewhere that Karl Barth said:

When the angels praise God in Heaven I am sure they play Bach. However, en famille they play Mozart.

So enjoy this beautiful Mozart setting (Laudate Dominum, KV 339) sung by young Slovak operatic soprano Patricia Janečková. Why this particular performance? The chamber orchestra is light and impressive, the setting and the performers are convincing and, like all human faces, beautiful:

Ps 117 (116 in Vulgate) melismatic chant in the Liber usualis. (Note ‘gentes’ spread across a dozen or so notes)

As shown above, words are often stretched over a phrase of melody. Composers have resorted to various ploys to make a substantial song out of a couple of verses that take seconds to recite:

  • Medieval composers would have just resorted to melismata, singing many notes and ornaments to each syllable, as does the Gregorian chant still in use today (illustration above)
  • Or their manuscript illuminators just filled in with mysterious drawings
  • Classical composers were quite used to repetition, imitation, counterpoint, inversion and various other tricks to stretch one phrase into a page of music.
  • They could add verses from somewhere else then a few pages of Alleluias — JS Bach by this means manages 14 pages in one of his motets.
  • PFAS points out that some of the shorter choruses can be sung in different languages — how is your pronunciation?
  • Isaac Everett in TEP suggests ‘it could become a full-on jam session’, very appealing to this cantor
  • Some, including Everett’s, can be sung as a round.

Size may matter in some domains: David, by both his harp and sling-shot, abundantly demonstrated otherwise.

1Psalms for All Seasons Page 737