Psalm 51: Popular penitential

‘You are just when you speak, and upright in your judgment.’ (4)

Psalm 51 is the fourth or middle of the so-called ‘Penitential Psalms’. It begins:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

Well-used it is; for centuries it has been a popular choice. Often sung during Lent, on Ash Wednesday and Tenebrae services, the poem is the source of many texts, such as that concluding vespers or other ‘Propers’. Fragments appear frequently in matins and other prayers: “Create in me a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

Many verses are familiar by virtue of their frequent use in liturgies and prayers. This prayer from verse 15, for example, in the first 1549 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, still in use in the rite for morning prayer:

Cantor: O Lord, open thou our lips.
People: And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.
Extract of Psalm 51:7 Gregorian chant in Liber Usualis

Then there is the hyssop in verse 7, which in the Latin begins: Asperges me. This is not an admission by David that he has an unusual personality condition, but praying: “Cleanse me with hyssop and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” It goes on in sombre tone until a glimmer of light in verse 12

King David plays the harp

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit

The subtitle advises us that this is a sincere prayer by David, as he regrets his wicked behaviour during the story Bathsheba when the brave prophet Nathan called him out. (2 Samuel 11) The lament is given a sharper edge by an associated OT reading after Uriah was killed. How would you like to be in Nathan’s shoes? Just pop in to King David plucking his lyre in the grand throne room and tell him straight that he really blew it: time to really face the music.

Result: penitence — and Nathan kept his head.


Psalm 51 seems to have attracted musicians like bees to honey. Even our favoured source 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.

Amongst this plethora of settings, Lassus wrote four motets on Psalm 51, for two voices (a setting of verse 9), four (verse 3), five to six, and finally nine voices. Apart from the duet, they use that opening line: ‘Have mercy on me, O God’. Being in the customary Latin of the day, the title of the shorter motet for four voices is Miserere mei Domine.

An earlier Lassus blockbuster is Miserere mei Deus.s noted in Chapter 6, this much more ambitious setting in 1570 is part of a collection of all the seven penitential psalms, with a couple of extra psalms of praise thrown in. It’s a rich and varied collection with one motet for each of the 136 verses included, most in 5 or 6 parts like the example shown at left of the full A minor entry chord for the last verse of Psalm IV (here numbered verse 20 as in the Vulgate version, 19 in ours: Then you will be pleased with the sacrifice.)

Carnival of animals?

Psalm 51
Detail of voice entries to Psalm 51:20 by Lassus

The modern chorister may be baffled by the part titles in the illustration, CATQB.

Maybe Lassus, imagining the dreary experience cooped up below decks in Noah’s ark, wrote this so that whenever animals go on another long trip, they can sing in the back of the ark/bus – the lettering against each staff clearly includes Cats, Aardvarks, Tigers and Bears. In the 6-part verses, the top line splits into CI and CII, perchance for Cats and Cheetahs.

There are a few missing of course — the serpent is off chewing dust (Isaiah 65) and others are lying peacefully together somewhere, the wolf dwelling with the lamb, the Leopard lying down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together somewhere. (Isaiah 11:6) But here’s the problem. What did Lassus have in mind for the Q? Here in Terra Australis, especially to Western Australians, the Quokka of Rottnest Island immediately springs to mind. Had the maestro ever heard of this modest but noble animal; and indeed, was it on the Ark?

Psalm 51 ‘Miserere mei’ in the 10th C. Bosworth Psalter, British Library MS 37517 f32r. A gloss in Old English has been added later in the margins of the original Latin Text.

And while we are spinning yarns, there’s Mozart and In Latin, the psalm begins ‘Miserere‘ meaning ‘Have mercy’. A quite stunning and famous setting by Gregorio Allegri was written for two choirs in about 1630, to be sung in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.  It was not to be sung elsewhere under pain of excommunication.

The story goes that 14 year-old Mozart (1756-91) heard it and later accurately transcribed it from memory, leading to its free publication. Young Wolfgang was later summoned to the pope to receive congratulations on this musical feat, rather than admonishment.

And listen to this rendition by the Tallis Scholars:

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