How long?

Posted on: 20 February 2021, by :

The group of seven ‘Penitential Psalms’ (psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143 in the Hebrew numbering) have been recommended for devotions since as early as the time of St Augustine in the fifth century. They have often been prescribed by the Church for Ash Wednesday and for other times during Lent and Passiontide because they focus on the need for repentance and seeking forgiveness, invariably in a highly personal way with cries for mercy and deliverance. They do not take long to read, and by tradition in the Roman Catholic Church they were sung in Latin just as quickly to formulaic Gregorian chants known as psalm tones: Psalm 6 intoned in this way may be heard here. By the Renaissance, it was recognized that these particular psalms cry out for more extensive musical treatment—for music, when well judged, can express the anguish and the full range of emotions associated with penitence and take the listener to a place far beyond the words. But then there’s a problem, for when set to composed music that is in any way decorative they take up much more time. The famous setting of all seven by Orlande de Lassus, published in 1584, is remarkably concise (it does not employ elaborate polyphony) but still needs 2.5 hours to perform.

It therefore became the custom, when elaborate music was desired, to compose motets on short fragments of the psalm texts, thus allowing for phrase repetition when the effect of repetition really matters. A fine example is Monteverdi’s Domine, ne in furore tuo arguas me (published 1620), which sets only the first three verses of Psalm 6, the first Penitential Psalm.

Domine, ne in furore tuo arguas me,
neque in ira tua corripias me.
Miserere mei, Domine, quoniam infirmus sum;
sana me, Domine, quoniam conturbata sunt ossa mea.
Et anima mea turbata est valde;
sed tu, Domine, usquequo?
O Lord, rebuke me not in thy indignation,
nor chastise me in thy wrath.
Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak:
heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled.
And my soul is troubled exceedingly:
but thou, O Lord, how long?

Monteverdi’s treatment delivers chaotic music for the dis-ease of God’s anger (furore, ira) and a troubled soul (conturbata, turbata), juxtaposed against gentle, unperturbed phrases for miserere mei and sana me (‘have mercy on me’, ‘heal me’) that anticipate the peace to be gained through penitence. Even more remarkable is how the motet ends with the elliptical question that goes unanswered: But you, Lord, how long …?

In the Protestant tradition, no room was left for ambiguity. In the version of Psalm 6 prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer (from 1559) the question became But, Lord, how long wilt thou punish me? For the anthem O Lord, in thy wrath (the equivalent of the Latin motet), that harshness becomes softened: the selected portion of the psalm continues on to include the plea in the next verse: ‘O save me, for thy mercy’s sake’.

* *  This is the first post in a series for
Lent and Holy Week, 2021
 * *

Claudio Monteverdi’s Domine, ne in furore tuo arguas me (from his first book of motets, 1620), performed by Kairos Vox in a recent recording session at the church of Sant’Andrea Apostolo, Castelfranco Veneto. See also a fine version with the score, featuring a CD recording by Concerto Italiano issued in 2000.

Gibbons’s O Lord, in thy wrath (from a manuscript of c1630), sung by The Queen’s Six (CD album, 2015).

Gibbons’s anthem performed as a consort song by Clare Wilkinson and Fretwork (CD album, 2019).

The six-voice setting of the anthem by Orlando Gibbons is a superb example of his fine ability in using harmony of the tenderest kind to enhance the poignancy of a text. His final heart-melting section—O save me— is surely one of the best moments in all music.

O Lord, in thy wrath rebuke me not: neither chasten me in thy displeasure.
Have mercy upon me, O Lord, for I am weak: O Lord, heal me, for my bones are vexed.
My soul also is sore troubled: but, Lord, how long wilt thou punish me?
O save me for thy mercy's sake.