Psalm 52: Trust in love
A green olive tree. Image:

‘A green olive tree in the house of God … trust in love.’ (8)

Psalm 52 is another of those songs that can sound vindictive and unforgiving when encountered outside its historical setting. Fortunately, the preamble refers to Doeg and Saul, thereby providing the requisite clues.

Introducing Doeg. Bible
Introducing Doeg. Bible

Doeg is not, one has to admit, a big name in biblical tales. A devious fellow, it seems, which is what got David so worked up. Best I quote one of the dictionaries (see box, click to enlarge):

The psalmist is justifiably cranky at being misrepresented. He had not yet received the policy update bulletin about love enemies, strangers and neighbours, of course — that is coming up in the gospel reading with the Good Samaritan.

So David wanted God to hand out the full come-upance. Having got this off his chest, he then pops in one of those little gems of imagery:

But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever

Near the Pont du Gard stands an old olive tree a thousand years old, gift of the Spanish people; a classic example of this imagery.


Most congregations will be happy with simple sung verses and response such as those available in the usual sources.


More ambitiously, how nice it would be if you could roll out Orlando de Lasso‘s motet for five voices entitled Quam gloriaris. The Latin text of this incipit is rendered rather quaintly in the BCP as:

Why boastest thou thyself, thou tyrant: that thou canst do mischief; whereas the goodness of God endureth yet daily?

This two-part piece was published in Sacrae cantiones in 1566, during his time in Venice. It starts conventionally enough, the alto entering with the melody, rather than the usual tenor entry. The other voices enter in succession, cantus, tenor, then quintus and finally bass.

Lassus' Quid gloriaris, CPDL
Extract of Lassus’ Quid gloriaris, CPDL

The opening tune is essentially a rising scale do-re-mi-fa-so in F with ornamentation. Composers often used the Gregorian psalm tones as a basis for composition. While it is not quite one of the standard psalm tones from Liber Usualis, it is close to Tone I shown here. It may also have been a popular sacred or secular song in Venice at the time.

Psalm tone I

It sounds simple at the start but gradually gets so intertwined as to make the earth move and the horizon tilt.

Detail of synchronous ornamentation in Psalm 52 by Lassus
Detail of synchronous ornamentation in Psalm 52 by Lassus

The delayed imitation continues, the parts gradually coming back together at bar 30 before separating again. The cumulative ornamentation produces those moments when two or three voices have all the fun while the others hold a nice anchoring note. These moments can be quite a thrill to the singer, whether doing the Swingle Singer frills or the anchor. They reach a heightened awareness of a satisfying musical and temporal connect between singers when the plan comes together.

The opening of the Secunda Pars Propteria Deus (verse 5) in contrast, is completely homophonic (one has to be careful with that word – beware the spell-checker). So it is at bar 8, before the voices separate into their own playful counterpoint. The assembled faithful would then have had to know the words to discern any meaning from the delightful but complex layers of notes and words.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.