Psalm 91: Security

‘God’s faithfulness shall be a shield.’ (4)

The devil took Jesus to a high place and said: “Jump! You’ll be fine …

…  for it is written, ‘God will command the angels to protect you; on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’

Luke 4:9-11

Psalm 91 is where ‘it is written’. That is the reason this psalm is set for the beginning of Lent, at the entry into the forty days and nights of reflection in the desert. It may also be sung in the evening Compline prayer service.

The whole poem is really about being in a safe place in the shadow of the wings of a caring God, despite desert, dangers, devils.


Cantus and Alto lines shown

Those verses quoted above traditionally provide the text for the gradual for Lent 1. The example shown above is by Manuel Cardoso (1566-1650), a Portuguese composer whose first book of masses was published in 1605, the same year as the better-known Officium Defunctorum, the great requiem mass by Tomas Luis di Victoria across the border in Spain.

Perhaps a hundred years earlier, the great Josquin des Prez (c. 1450-1521) wrote a more ambitious work based on the first eight verses of Psalm 91.

The small section of the psalm arrangement shown above is unusual. It shows just one voice rather than SATB, but has what appear to be some large bar numbers. What are the large coda markers and numbers about?

The clue is in the headers; first, Qui habitat in adjutorio altissimi, XXIV vocum. The first phrase is obviously the incipit:

Whoever dwells in the secret place of the most High (shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty)

verse 1,

The next clue is XXIV vocum, or ‘in 24 voices’. Twenty-four parts looks pretty fierce but the work is actually a round (‘Canon à 6’ gives it away), the song being sung sequentially by six quartets. This accounts for the numbered signs for the entries of the six groups a bar apart. (Other editions just show 24 staves vertically on each page, perhaps easier to follow but the print is quite small.)

This work is often listed as ‘Qui habitat à 24’. It must be admitted that seasoned choristers irreverently refer to it as: ‘Who lives at no 24?’ Regardless, it’s a good sing.

Back to reality. Many modern settings revel in that safe shelter in verse 1.

  • TiS 48 (albeit neither responsorial nor coinciding with the lectionary verses) is the popular And I will raise you up on eagles’ wings.
  • PFAS 91D alternate refrain is one of the easiest, and offers a simple tune and nice standard chord progression (I-IV-vi-ii-V-I).
  • The previous 91C is a nice Spanish song with a slightly longer refrain that rolls along. Best if you have SATB singers but fine without.
  • And then a simple paraphrase allows the text to be sung to a 12-bar Blues for Lent — a bridge too far?