Psalm 143, penitential 7

Note: the set readings for 9 October 2016 are Psalms 66 or 111. Both have been discussed in previous posts which can be found via Library & Index in the list of pages.

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>). 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 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 such as ours at South Woden. It starts with a simple rising scale of an octave of C major in quintus and bass:

Ps143-lassus-trio-entryLassus 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)

Psalm 69

Sometimes themes and verses are repeated so often in the psalms that it’s hard to find new inspiration. In Psalm 69, we hear again the laments and prayers of someone who feels enmity, opposition, slander and loneliness, the while giving thanks for merciful love and safety in divine provision.

IMG_2346.JPGFresh, however, is imagery of sinking in swirling waters — ‘up to my neck, I sink in deep mire where there is no foothold’. Another new touch is in verse 21, quoted in all the gospel stories of the crucifixion:

They gave me gall to eat, vinegar to quench my thirst.

Save me O God by John Blow (1648-1708) nicely captures these fresh ideas using a four-part chorus, with a trio singing selected verses. Lassus wrote at least three settings for verses in Psalm 69, including a trio Deus tu scis using verse 6; on verse 13 Adversum me loquebantur à5; and another trio Exaudi me on verse 17.

Amongst the few contemporary settings available for this psalm, two in Psalms for All Seasons — with different authors but the same chord sequence — appear unremarkable but should respond well to sympathetic treatment. 69C has added attraction as coming from the pen of John Bell and Wild Goose.

I enjoy the sparse introduction to a song by Australian band The Sons of Korah released on their 2005 album Resurrection. You can hear a sample on their web-site. I note, by the way, that the band has a concert in Canberra next Saturday 10 September 2016 — all psalms!

Psalms 108, 109, 110

The first psalm in Book 5 of the Psalter107 is included in the Revised Common Lectionary; but then 108 is the first of three consecutive ‘skips’, all songs attributed to David. (Thirteen of the 44 psalms in Book 5 are omitted.) Unsurprisingly,  relatively few musical setting appear in our regular sources.

Psalm 108

There’s a little recycling going on here, with the opening five verses borrowed from Psalm 57:7-11 and the rest, the last eight verses, from Psalm 60:5-12, themselves also skips.

Lute tuning pegsFirst, one of those declarations beloved of cantors and musicians:

My heart is firmly fixed O God, I will sing and make melody. Wake up my spirit! Awake lute and harp; I myself will waken the dawn. (vs. 1-3)

At times like this I wish I played a lovely old lute with many strings rather than my worn old Spanish guitar. My instrument was inherited from my family and is therefore much cherished, but admittedly has a modest sound.

Finding a good responsorial setting for 108 might be problematical were it not for Everett’s refrain slipping between D minor and Bb7 (or, to be precise, a Bb7#11 — love those extensions!) Before taking up that lute, though, the eye is caught by a mysterious little tour of the political geography, :

I will parcel out Schechem … Ephraim is my helmet … Moab is my washbasin, on Edom I throw down my sandal to claim it. (vs. 7 – 9)

The nuances are largely lost on the modern reader but David’s claim for divine influence is clear enough.

Psalm 109

Yin YangThis is an extended song of prayer for justice and freedom from a serious bout of false accusation. Its omission from the RCL will trouble few readers. However, it’s worth noting that Psalm 109 sits as one of David’s dark moments between the joyful praise of 108 and 110. This juxtaposition of light and shade happens frequently within and between psalms.

In another set of three songs by David, the peace and warmth of the Shepherd psalm leavens the preceding lament of Psalm 22, used on Good Friday, and the splendour of Psalm 24 and ‘Lift up your heads O ye gates’.


Settings can be found, of course, in psalters with one song per psalm, whether Genevan, Ravenscroft or Everett. Collections like Psalms for all seasons, however, hurry past 108 to 110.

Lassus wrote a nice two-pager that might suit your sight-reading group. He follows the common path of selecting just one juicy piece of a long poem, in this case the gem of verse 20:

Monteverdi_vesperBut deal thou with me, O Lord God, according unto thy Name: for sweet is thy mercy (BCP)

Psalm 110

This short psalm, quoted by the writer of Ephesians, is one of praise for divine power and transcendence.

For some reason, Psalm 110 attracted far more composers than the previous two, save in modern collections influenced by the Lectionary. Monteverdi quoted Psalm 110 together with several others in his famous Vespers of 1610. Many of the big names like Buxtehude, Mozart, Vivaldi and Victoria bent their considerable talents to this text.

Illustration of Monteverdi Vespers;