Psalm 6: Penitence

Psalm 6 is the first of the so-called penitential psalms, discussed in more detail elsewhere. Its author is suffering, weak and weary, seeking healing and freedom. Near the end of the song, the author declares relief; “God accepts my prayer” (9), recalling a line in another psalm:

Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy’

Psalm 126:5

The grouping of these seven penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143) evolved over a thousand years or so ago. Many poets and composers have been inspired to build works based on them.

Poenitentialus primus, the first Penitential Psalm, by Lassus; for 6 voices, published 1584

Foremost amongst them was a work by Roland de Lassus, the major publication Psalmi Davidis poenitentiales of 1584 in Munich. He wrote an extended piece for each of the seven psalms, one in each of the eight modes in use in early times. An eighth piece was a combination of two psalms of praise (148 and 150) to complete the set. Each verse of each psalm receives a separate short motet, making in all 136 pieces that could be sung separately. In Psalm 6, illustrated, he set verse 3 for three voices, verse 4 for four voices and then five voices thereafter.

Psalm 6 incipit in The Maastricht Hours, 14th C., in which the penitential psalms are grouped

As with the key penitential Psalm 51, Lassus, Byrd and Schütz all wrote several settings for this psalm or selected verses.

At a more practical level, there are several other sources of easier refrains.

Psalm 6, omitted in the Lectionary, does not therefore make it into TiS; but Psalms for All Seasons has a nice one at PFAS6B (spoken verses), the feature catching my eye being the chord progressions Cm-Bb-Ab-Fm.

Another picks up the phrase ‘How long?’ that appears in many psalms, including 3 and 13.