Songs of deliverance

Posted on: 1 March 2021, by :

The first and third of the Penitential Psalms are auguished laments, crying out for relief and salvation from the consequences of sinfulness (both begin with ‘Lord, do not punish me in your anger’). Lying between them, the second Pentitential Psalm, Psalm 32 (31 in the Latin Vulgate), contrastingly seems like an oasis of reassurance, with thanksgiving for confession and God’s blessings of forgiveness and mercy that follow. The musical setting by the Venetian composer Benedetto Marcello, published in 1726, conveys very well the calm serenity of those blessings and how the penitent may be enveloped with ‘songs of deliverance’ and ‘be glad in the Lord … merry and joyful’. Its modern lyricism effectively dramatizes the psalm, characterizing its ancient messages and how we might receive them.

1. Blessed is he whose wickedness is forgiven: and whose transgressions are covered.
2. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputeth no sin: and in whose spirit there is no guile.
3. For while I kept silence: my bones consumed away through my daily complaining.
4. For day and night thy hand is heavy upon me: and my moisture is like the drought in summer.
5. I will acknowledge my sin unto thee: and mine iniquity have I not hid.
6. I said I will confess my sins unto the Lord Jehovah: and thou, O Lord, 
   did pardon my iniquity, thou forgavest my sin and wickedness.
7. For this shall every one that is godly make his prayer unto thee, in a time when thou mayest 
   be found: but in the floods of great waters they shall not come nigh him.
8. Thou art my hiding-place, thou shalt preserve me from trouble and adversity: 
   thou shalt encompass me with songs of deliverance.
9. I will inform thee, and teach thee the way which thou shalt go: 
   and I will guide thee with mine eye.
10. Be ye not like as the horse nor as the mule, which have no understanding: 
   whose mouths must be held in with bit and bridle, lest they come near unto thee.
11. Many sorrows remain for the ungodly: but whoso putteth his trust in the Lord Jehovah, 
   blessings of mercy shall he encompass on every side.
12. Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice and be righteous: 
   and be merry and joyful, ye that are true of heart. 

The version in English (1757), edited by John Garth and Charles Avison, of Benedetto Marcello’s setting of Psalm 32, in a CD recorded in 2015 by Voces8 and Les Inventions.

Marcello’s original version in Italian (published 1726), performed by Gli Erranti in a CD recording of 2010.


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

Marcello’s remarkable undertaking of creating new, non-liturgical compositions from the first fifty psalms—by setting the paraphrased poetic texts in Italian by Girolamo Ascanio Giustiniani—became a publishing sensation across Europe. Entitled Estro poetico-armonico and issued in eight volumes in 1724-6, the collection was astonishingly daring for its time, with compositional techniques that owe much to the secular Arcadian cantata and almost nothing to actual church music (which in Roman-Catholic Italy employed Latin and followed traditional rules). The version of Marcello’s psalms in English, which we sample in the first of these recordings, was devised and edited by John Garth and Charles Avison, who were friends and colleagues in Durham and Newcastle, and published in London in 1757. The English text (for Psalm 32, at least) follows the normal Anglican version known from The Book of Common Prayer, except for some small changes in wording and word-order here and there to make it fit well with Marcello’s music.

The composer Johann Mattheson, famous as the earliest internationally admired music critic, penned a glowing testimonial to the brilliance of Marcello’s conception, attesting also to how well the first few volumes of the psalms had been received in performances in Hamburg. Dated 6 October 1725, it was published in 1726 as an additional preface in Marcello’s sixth volume (in which Psalm 32 appears), and later reproduced in English translation by Garth and Avison. Addressing Marcello directly, he wrote (among many other things):

Instead of the Multitude of Parts, and the laboured Counterpoints, which have hitherto filled our Churches, and obscured, nay perverted the Sense of the Words, and Expression of the Sentiments; your Excellency, uniting Solidity with Sweetness, and Chearfulness with Edification, hath discovered a Path hitherto trodden by none.

It is wonderful … to feel that nothing but the true Devotion of the Heart can supply Means sufficient to express the spiritual Affections, which move the Soul, exalt the Sentiment and inspire holy Desires. Your charming Melody, insinuating itself into the Ear, remains not there; it penetrates the Heart, and commands Attention.