Out of the depths

Posted on: 14 March 2021, by :

Psalm 130, the sixth Penitential Psalm, concludes positively with reassurances of God’s ‘plentiful redemption’ but begins as a gloomy lament in which the penitent cries out for mercy ‘de profundis’, ‘from the depths’—presumably the depths of despair where the light of hope is extinguished. While there is nothing in its text that marks it as one exclusively for funerals, the psalm came to be commonly associated with liturgies for the departed, especially in the Roman Catholic church where the doctrine of purgatory presupposes that the person who has died must first undergo purification from their sin before they may attain the holiness needed for life in heaven. Since purgatory was often associated also with the unresolved, in-between state of limbo, it is easy to understand how the opening of the psalm came to be interpreted as a lurid image: the soul crying out to be rescued from the edge of hell itself. Such a dark and dramatic scene was, in turn, the inspiration for some vivid musical treatments in late seventeenth-century France, where it became customary to append, at the end of the psalm, the versicle and response (‘Requiem æternam …’) expected at funerals.

This setting by Michel-Richard de Lalande (1657-1726), who served both Louis XIV and Louis XV as the leading composer for the royal chapel at the chateau of Versailles, is probably the most spectacular case. It exemplifies also the genre of the grand motet, favoured and expected by Louis XIV: an extravagant manner of setting psalms and canticles that integrates solo and choral singing with a large ensemble of instruments. Lalande’s imaginative music dramatizes the psalm in a way that compels passionate delivery in performance—especially when the collective choral voice cries out with ‘clamavi’ and ‘Domine quis sustinebit?’—while also providing, in the opening section and the Requiem æternam (from 14:52 minutes in), the rich, dark senses and colours of mourning.

Dated 1689 in the earliest manuscript, Lalande’s De profundis was undoubtedly performed for several funerals associated with the court. It may have been updated for the funeral of the king (Louis XIV died on 1 September 1715): the Requiem aeternam section performed here is a revised version from late in Lalande’s life.

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

De profundis by Michel-Richard de Lalande, performed by Pygmalion, directed by Raphaël Pichon, in the royal chapel at the palace of Versailles on 4 November 2015, 300 years after the funeral of Louis XIV.

[Section i] De profundis clamavi ad te Domine:
     Domine exaudi vocem meam.
[ii] Fiant aures tuae intendentes in vocem deprecationis meae.
[iii] Si iniquitates observabis Domine, Domine quis sustinebit?
[iv] Quia apud te propitiatio est
     propter legem tuam sustinui te Domine.
[v] Sustinuit anima mea in verbum eius: Speravit anima mea in Domino.
[vi] A custodia matutina usque ad noctem speret Israel in Domino.
[vii] Quia apud Dominum misericordia et copiosa apud eum redemptio.
[viii] Et ipse redimet Israel ex omnibus iniquitatibus eius.
[ix] Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine;
[x] Et lux perpetua luceat eis.
[i] Out of the depths I have cried to you, O Lord:
     Lord, hear my voice.
[ii] Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication.
[iii] If you, O Lord, will count iniquities: Lord, who shall stand it?
[iv] For with you there is merciful forgiveness:
     and, by reason of your law, I have waited for you, O Lord.
[v] My soul has relied on his word: my soul has hoped in the Lord.
[vi] From the morning watch even until night, let Israel hope in the Lord.
[vii] Because with the Lord there is mercy: and with him plentiful redemption.
[viii] And he shall redeem Israel from all its iniquities.
[ix] Grant unto him eternal rest, O Lord;
[x] And let perpetual light shine upon him.