Psalm 143: The last penitential

‘Let your good Spirit lead me on level ground.’ (10)

Ps143 Lassus

The seven so-called penitential psalms (more>) start at 6 and are sprinkled throughout the psalter, running to the fourth —  the great Psalm 51 (recipient of many settings by many composers and featured prominently in previous blogs) — through to this last Psalmus Poenitentialis VII – Psalm 143 (text here>).

In the early verses David prays to the faithful and good spirit of creation to have mercy, to not judge, and to deliver him from enemies. He then asks God to guide and lead his feet ‘on level ground’. (10)

The Latin title quoted here is that used by Orlando de Lasso for his major collection of all seven. He rounded it up to eight by adding a composite of some songs of praise.

The opening chord of Psalm 143 Domine exaudi / Hear my prayer shown above looks quite harmless; no sharps or flats, a G major chord leading immediately to the sub-dominant C major triad.

Be not deceived, nor lulled into complacency. Lassus very soon diverges into all sorts of relative minors and progressions to a rich five-part song. And that’s just verse 1; remember that he wrote a section for each verse with differing voice selections. Interestingly, verse three is for three voices (another of his tricks). In this case they are for male voices and might well suit a male voice group. It starts with a simple rising scale of an octave of C major in quintus and bass:

Lassus has featured frequently in comments on this blog, probably to the extent of bias. I plead guilty: but in my defence I must quote Isaac Everett, a self-confessed modernist and author of many rock and jazz-inspired antiphons in The Emergent Psalter, who says of the Lassus Psalmi Davidis Poenitentiales:

Even if you don’t have a choir, you should find a recording and give them a listen — it makes great ambience for a service of meditative prayer. (p. 265)

Other settings:

  • Everett’s own refrain in TEP emphasises the prayer that divine judgement be merciful (v.2).
  • The responsorial refrain in Psalms for All Seasons is an excerpt from a melody called ‘Wondrous love’, a lilting tune that is attributed to W Walker’s Southern Harmony 1835. I recall from playing it when living in the US that it is drawn from a native American traditional tune, one which stays hauntingly in the mind.
  • New Century has another simple one by Marty Haugen using verse 6, My soul thirsts for you like a parched land. Incidentally, note the peaceful contemplation in the previous verse, where the psalmist says:

I remember time past; I ponder all your deeds; I consider ….’ (Ps 143:5)

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