The penitential psalm : Psalm 50/51 (again)

Penitential psalms
Miserere mei ms
have mercy on me

Psalm 50/51 has been called the ‘most influential and beloved’ of the Penitential Psalms (New Lion Handbook to the Bible, 1999).  There are supposed to be seven of these, but it’s an arbitrary (though ancient) classification, and it’s easy to find different lists also classified as ‘penitential psalms’.  Augustine names four (fifth century), Cassiodorus (sixth century) goes for seven, other authors go for different totals.  Apart from seven being a magic number of completion or possibly (more prosaically) a number that we can remember (most Catholics can name the sacraments but it’s hard to get a full set of apostles), it’s a convenient way to take a selection of the psalms, making them easier to handle. 

Irresistible raw material for others

As a group, the penitential psalms have been translated into various forms of verse and set to music by various poets and composers down the years, including Dante, and practically every one of the Tudor poets (Mary Sidney’s version of this particular penitential psalm is notably elegant).  Books of Hours (used as personal prayerbooks from mediaeval times onwards) usually contain (among other prayers)  the Psalms of Ascents (the ‘pilgrimage psalms‘, from Ps 119/120 up to Ps 133/134), followed by the Penitential Psalms, because those are the psalms that everyone usually wants in their prayerbooks.  I looked briefly at the penitential psalms when I discussed the theme of penitence in Year A, but now I want to concentrate on Psalm 50/51 alone.

Psalm 50/51 in its context
penitential psalm illumination
David and Bathsheba in comic-strip form

One reason for the popularity of Psalm 50/51, the Miserere,  is that it comes with a particular story attached, like the rivers of Babylon psalm (Ps 136/137).  This one is supposed to be definitely and authentically by David, specifically composed by him after Nathan calls him to account over his murder of Uriah following his appropriation of Uriah’s wife (check the story at 2 Samuel 11).   Not everyone agrees with this ascription, though, and opinions also differ about whether some of the verses were added on later, after the destruction of the Temple.  Its origin is not the only (or best-known) story attached to Psalm 50/51.  There is also the web of legend around Allegri’s musical setting of it, which Mozart (aged fourteen) is said to have pirated from memory after hearing it sung in the Sistine Chapel, when no one was allowed to transcribe or publish it.  The detail I like best is that having transcribed it from memory, he then went back and made minor corrections after hearing it again.

The Penitential Psalm

According to The Nuttall Encyclopaedia (1907), Psalm 50/51 is the original ‘Penitential Psalm’ and it was recited every day at the end of Morning Prayer by the primitive Church.  This sort of usage, like the Salve Regina and the ‘Last Gospel’ (John 1), both used after Mass, indicates a genuine popular devotion.  Stephen Langton, King John’s Archbishop of Canterbury, recited it on his deathbed, Sir Thomas More on the scaffold.  If it were weaker in itself, it would be hallowed by its past use, but it also contains (even in translation) beautiful and resonant lines, including ‘O Lord, open my lips/ and my mouth shall declare your praise’, which no church musician can hear without a spontaneous lift of the heart.

Frequency of use…
penitential psalm illumination
David, penitent

Some psalms come up more often than others.  Sometimes it’s because they are very long psalms, but then often you might not even notice that it’s the same psalm recurring, as the Lectionary simply offers us three or four stanzas, plus Response.  It can be easy to miss the relationship between two short Responsorial Psalms.  But some stand-alone short psalms, without much variation in verses, come up repeatedly, and then you have to decide whether to identify that psalm with one particular tune, or allow yourself the treat of setting it all over again.

…can lead to repetition..
penitential psalm illumination
David penitent, but with instruments

Sometimes a psalm can be repeated several weeks in a row (Psalm 33/34, across three Sundays in Ordinary Time Year B), with different stanzas and/or Responses, and then you have to decide whether to keep the tune the same or not. Sometimes the words decide that for you. For Psalm 33/34 and its long run, I kept the Response the same if the Lectionary did and changed the verse tune if the Lectionary changed the verses, so we now have to be incredibly careful to sing the right one on the right day. There’s a fine line to be drawn between familiarity as a positive thing, encouraging people to sing along,  – and boring people with the same simple tune repeated.

…or not, as the case may be
Shepherds and sheep
a good shepherd

If it’s a really short psalm, the words are the same whenever it comes up. Even here, there is room for some variation. Psalm 22/23, the Lord is my shepherd, has a lot of different versions for such a short psalm, because it comes up repeatedly but with small changes either in the Response or in how the verses are arranged into stanzas, and how much regularising has been done (there tends to be more in the US Lectionary). Sometimes the valley of darkness is omitted completely.

Psalm 50/51 in a new version

And so I have just written another version for Psalm 50/51.  As one of the great penitential psalms, it comes up often.  It always appears in Lent (not on a Sunday in Year C, though).  It is the psalm for the First Sunday of Lent in Year A, and the Fifth in Year B, but it’s there in the weekdays as well, which are the same every year (coming up on Ash Wednesday, the Friday after Ash Wednesday, the following Wednesday, and so on), which is why I needed a new one.  It used to be even more frequent, especially on Lent Fridays.

penitential psalm illumination
Nathan reproaching David

It is strongly placed as the cry of a sinner who knows himself to be one.  It’s all about recognising the wrong that we have done and confidently asking for God’s forgiveness.  It is an intensely human psalm, admitting guilt but making excuses, admitting responsibility but throwing it back onto God, admitting past failings but trying to move the narrative on to the future when things will be better.  There is room within the psalm for a narrative that goes from the frank admission of guilt and expression of repentance, to the description of God’s goodness and the sinner’s aspiration to be remade in his image.  Then he looks forward to the good he will be able to do on God’s behalf, and the joy of God’s continued favour.   There are twentyone verses in this psalm, which add up to ten four-line stanzas, so there are choices to be made when using it as a Responsorial Psalm (usually four stanzas maximum), and it is indeed slightly different in each of its appearances in the Missal.  On Ash Wednesday, we have four stanzas, covering the admission of guilt and the firm purpose of amendment, ending with the promise of praise.  The following Friday, the emphasis is on repentance and the need for it; three stanzas this time, but the only positive is the penitent’s confidence (A humbled contrite heart you will not spurn as the last line and also chosen as the Response).  Wednesday of the 1st Week of Lent uses the same Response and first and last stanza but puts the aspirational section (A pure heart create for me, O God) as the middle stanza, so the mood is more encouraging.

The Ash Wednesday versions
penitential sermon
lining up for ashes

We’ve always had two versions of the psalm for Ash Wednesday, one like a hymn and one more spiky which works unaccompanied or with just the recorder, but I wanted to keep that exclusively for Ash Wednesday as a special day.  So when Psalm 50/51 came up on other Sundays (24 OTC, 5 Lent B), I used the hymn-style version for the stanzas, and just added a different Response.  Then I was asked to set it as a weekday psalm which used only the positive stanzas and which had the Response My mouth will declare your praise, so I had to write a new one altogether, which was faster-moving and more cheerful.  That was not going to work for the new Lent version I needed.

A Response with reverberations
penitential psalm MS
O Lord, open my lips

I have to admit, though, that the real driver of my desire to write a new one was because they had chosen A humbled contrite heart you will not spurn as the Response.  First I should clarify: I was doing this for the OZ Lectionary, which uses those words in the psalm, but then changes the Response to […] you will not scorn.  It seems odd to me not to change both or neither, especially as neither word is in common use exactly, but I don’t edit the words (ever), I just set them.  For simplicity I will just use ‘spurn’ when I’m quoting it, as it’s the word used in both places, in all the other Lectionaries.

The Heir of Redclyffe

And anyway, those are the words of the King James Version and therefore the words Charlotte Yonge uses when she wants to quote the line in a climactic moment in The Heir of Redclyffe, one of the truly great Victorian novels (and there are many, especially by women).  Just in case anyone hasn’t read it, this is a family saga, which is what Charlotte Yonge was best at, though it actually takes place over a fairly brief period (you hear at the end about how the rest of their lives turn out).  If you haven’t read it (yet), you have a treat in store.

author of Heir of Redclyffe
the great Charlotte M. Yonge

It is full of wonderful characters, pattern nephews who look like heroes but turn out to be dangerously at fault and almost-too- dashing heroes who turn out to be true as steel.  It’s too good and well-worked-out to reduce to a precis; it is a terrific read.  A broken and contrite heart… comes up twice, once when Amabel has to fetch Philip to his last meeting with the dying Guy, whom he has wronged so often and so deeply, and then a second time when she writes it in Guy’s prayer book, which has been passed on to Philip.   These are both such intense moments, deliberately almost underwritten, where these few words of the psalm carry so much weight that everything else can be understated.  I love the book dearly, it always makes me cry but it’s worth it, and when I found Psalm 50/51 with those words as the Response, I had to have another go at it.

The mood of the Lent setting
David penitential, but with musical solace

It’s a penitent Response but not an extravagant one.  It comes later in the psalm than the expression of guilt and grief, so I wanted the mood to be serene and reflective rather than anything else; also, it comes up with stanzas from both the repentant part and the positive part of the psalm, so the tune needs to cover both.  Unlike all the other settings of Psalm 50/51 that I have done, this one fell into 3/4.  The others are all ‘walking’ psalms, with the bass marking the slow footfalls in a penitential procession, but this one has a sway, like a lullaby, for comfort.  The comfort is there in the words : the psalmist is deeply penitent, but he has complete confidence in God’s forgiveness, and looks forward to doing better.  This is why this psalm comes up so often at the beginning of Lent, because it encapsulates the whole motivation of the season.  This isn’t my favourite of the penitential psalms (I like Out of the depths best, Ps 129/130), but I can see why so many people love it.  I hope they will like the new setting.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe composes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines. She writes about what comes up in the process, and blogs about the Synod, family life and women in the Church for The Tablet.

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