Roland de Lassus, Psalm 105

Orland_di_LassusRoland de Lassus, (1532-1594) or Orlando di Lasso as he was known in Italy where he spent some years, was one of the towering composers of the late Renaissance in 16th century Europe.

His mastery, breadth and sheer productivity made him famous in his time. Dynamic and emotional by nature, Lassus in his music strove for an engaging rhetorical, pictorial and dramatic interpretation of the text.

The other great composers of the Late Renaissance period are generally recognised as :

  • Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina in Italy,
  • William Byrd and Thomas Tallis in England and
  • Tomas Luis de Victoria in Spain

— all marvellous composers and amongst your webmaster’s favourite fruit.

A Walloon born about 1532 in Franco-Flemish Mons, now in Belgium, he became a fine chorister at an early age. Such was the beauty and purity of his voice that he was reportedly kidnapped three times, the last excursion finding him employed in the courts of Italy where he then learned his trade. By the time he left Italy for Antwerp in his early twenties, he was already publishing books of chansons, madrigals and motets. Another decade of fine composing and singing brought him recognition and, by 1564, to Munich, where he spent the rest of his fruitful life. The listing of his compositions and publications is staggering.

Canberra organist Peter Young, currently conducting The Oriana Chorale, has said that Lassus is very under-performed in this region, and I can only agree with him.

Psalm 105

Evensong, Basilica Vézelay

Evensong at Vézelay

Amongst many settings of scriptural texts, Lassus’ set of 7 penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143) is highly regarded. However, it is his relatively obscure arrangement of Psalm 105 that attracts our attention this month. This is a beautiful work for five voices, a combination used often in that period but infrequently within our grasp at South Woden.

Selections from the psalm appear on 27 July, 10 and 31 August, and 21 September so we have decided to make this a season of dipping into this historical period of Renaissance music. We present the Lassus work in Latin, the people responding in the same language.

Our male voice group on 27 July introduced this sequence of readings with a small quote from the Lassus work used as the response. True to the style of the era we sang the verses to a Gregorian chant. This will be the pattern for all occurrences of this psalm. A cantor invites the congregation for the response:

Cantor: Invocate nomen Dei / Call upon the name of God

People: Confetimini Domino / O give thanks unto the Lord

Confetimini Domino à 5

Lassus’ motet* will be an inspiring precursor to this chant and response on 10 August, a red-letter day for the Psalm Singers. He wrote the work in two parts, stretching and elaborating the first two short verses into a couple of minutes of flowing melismatic song. We shall sing just Part 1, Prima Pars, which starts thus:

A five-part setting by Orland de Lassus. Source cpdl

The tenor enters with a statement of the first phrase. A common practice of the era was to have the melody in the tenor voice; old hymn books included special settings of psalms as ‘Fauxbourdon’ versions, the tenor being the leading voice. Sometimes this melody was a quote or based on a well-known tune from the standard church tones of those and earlier days. Other voices enter in sequence repeating the same phrase in imitation.

Our stories for the day include Jacob and his coat; the children will then be busy with a dream coats activity. Here is Lassus weaving a dream coat from a few simple verses. See where the dream takes you.

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Psalm 105, 27 July 14

Psalm 105 from the St Albans Psalter, 12th century. Image: Wikimedia commons

Psalm 105 is a song of praise, as indeed are 106 and 107 that follow. The opening lines sound familiar, as such phrases occur throughout the Bible:

Confitemini Domino et invocate nomen ejus

Give glory to the Lord, and call upon his name

The next verse narrows the focus to set the theme as historical narrative, evidence that has provided confidence for such praise:

Annuntiate inter gentes opera ejus

Declare God’s deeds among the peoples.

Perhaps this is why the lectionary gives us the opportunity to revisit this psalm several times in coming weeks, with slightly differing verse selections. It recurs on 10 and 31 August, then on 21 September. This provides an opportunity for continuity, using the same style and response for all four appearances of this psalm.


The illustration from the  St Alban’s psalter above is in Latin (click on all photos to enlarge). Why the quotes in Latin this week, you ask? There’s a beautiful five-part setting of Psalm 105 in that language by the towering Roland de Lassus (Orlando di Lasso, c.1530 – 94) who, together with Palestrina in Italy, Byrd in England and Victoria in Spain, was one of the pillars of Late Renaissance music – see previous Crystal Ball post.

Works written for five voices are not everyday fare around South Woden; it is beautiful but demanding music. However, the Psalm Team has assembled a small group of experienced singers to present this centuries-old musical gem for your edification on 10 August.

Regrettably, these motets are rarely heard in Canberra, so that presentation on 10 August will be all the richer – note the date now! (It’s also a commissioning service for new Councillors). A separate post on the subject of this wonderful composer will follow soon.

A foretaste

I’m getting ahead of myself. This week, tossing the Renaissance ball into the ring, we start just with a small quote from the Lassus work as the response. And why not? — let’s sing it in Latin. The translation (above) will appear in the order of service: Ps105 Response


Gregorian chant was widely used during mediaeval and renaissance times. In step with the style of the day of Lassus, we shall use one of these chants for the verses, on this occasion Tone VIII which looks like this:

Psalm tone VIII

Originating over a thousand years ago and thus before the advent of polyphony, such tones were sung in unison. We observe that ancient practice for the forthcoming sequence of readings of Psalm 105.

A season of history Words are important

Thus we dip into history in a big way – Latin, Lassus and friend Greg from the 16th century. It’s not without precedent even in South Woden; we used this very chant last year to accompany an inspiring work by Hildegard. It’s worth re-reading the post for the psalm of the day here>.

It is also the fourth Sunday this week, so your ever-faithful men’s group await to lead you in this blast from the past. With some difficulty we have resisted the urge to enter stage right in long cloaks and dark cowls.

Seriously, though, the beauty and inspiration of Gregorian chant have been recognised over the centuries. The tones were designed to allow clarity of the words in the vast spaces of cathedrals and monasteries with their reverberant acoustics. Sung by voices in unison they have their own special atmospherics. Contact me if you want to be in it. Continue reading

Psalm 31, 13 April 14

You may have noticed that there are actually two psalms listed for Palm Sunday, the liturgies of the palms and that of the passion. A few days ago I posted on palms and Psalm 118 for this Sunday – but there’s no rule against a double-dip.

So we shall also enjoy Psalm 31, singing a response from Psalms for all seasons, no 31C.

14C hourglass, Basel museumAs usual there are many intertwined ideas in this song. The response is strong, picking up a rather mysterious but powerful promise in verse 15:

My times are in your hands.

That’s only one of four good snapshot statements of belief in this antiphon. It’s enough for now.


This nicely harmonised response follows an easy, descending path of similar phrases. Easily learned, nice to sing. Verses will be sung to a similar chord progression.

The main tune is quite a high setting but there is a second lower part acting as an echo voice which would be very warming. If you can help by meeting early to learn and sing this supporting tune, please respond below:

15C clock, Basel museumNotes

1.   Followers who access these posts by email on smart-phone may encounter problems with response boxes. View on your computer browser or download the WordPress app.

2.   If you have not yet entered your prediction on the song for Easter Sunday (at the foot of the palm post), the hourglass is running.

3.  Both ancient timepieces depicted are in Basel. Here in Canberra at the National Library you may have seen the important Harrison clock itself in the recent exhibition Mapping our world. Important? It’s the one that solved the problem of finding longitude when navigating at sea.

Psalm 112, 9 Feb 2014

Light rises in darkness

Light rises in darkness when justice rules our lives.

This is the antiphon from our chosen setting of Psalm 112 in Together in Song number 69; it’s a paraphrase based on verse 4.

It contains a powerful message – although just what ‘justice’ might mean in our daily lives is open to question.

As usual, it is worth looking at different translations as they often give us different ideas. NRSV says:

Light shines in the darkness for the upright; the righteous are merciful and full of compassion.

For me, the New International Version wins:

Even in darkness light dawns for the upright, for those who are gracious and compassionate and righteous.

Singer, Sans Souci Potsdam

The music for the opening phrase of the response rises step by step, like the sun rising from dark hills, preparing for the final call to a life of justice and faith.

A group of women will lead in the singing of this antiphon and, for our consideration and edification, the first nine verses of the psalm. 

The verses will be sung freely to the tone (a short chant tune with harmony) in the hymn book, with Brian’s delightful guitar accompaniment.

For more information on how to sing tones:

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