History and story psalms, too long for liturgy?

A long history of and in the Psalter

The Book of Psalms includes lots of different genres : laments, victory songs, blessings, curses, celebrations, warnings, history and stories, and that list is not exhaustive. The psalms themselves can vary wildly in length, from a couple of verses up to several pages of poetry, and it’s only a nod to poetic form and their purpose of being sung or recited that keeps them within bounds.  Using them liturgically means concern about form and size as well as message.

Man playing bells
ringing out the psalms

History psalms tend to be longer than many of the others, because the whole point is to show God’s regular intervention in Israel’s past, and how it worked out. If you reduce one of the history psalms to a Responsorial, or rather take a self-contained section out of it, you can be left with a simple but out-of-context account which makes better sense if you know the story already. We get this from time to time in the extracts prescribed for Sunday psalms, but it seems to happen more often among the weekday psalms, because they are chosen from a wider selection of psalms.

Never more than five stanzas for a Sunday

This can collide with the requirements of the Responsorial Psalm as set for us to sing on Sundays, which can’t be too long. We usually have three or four stanzas, occasionally five, but never more. In the traditions of different churches (Anglican, Orthodox, Presbyterian, for example), the rules are different, and they sing their way through the complete Psalter, every psalm, with all its verses. So does the (Catholic) Divine Office, but if you are a lay Catholic who goes mainly only to Sunday Masses, you will never get to sing all the psalms, or even all the verses of the psalms that we do sing. We sing extracts, meant to be pointed and relevant responses to the First Reading. 

What are we missing?

So the context inside the psalm could be relevant, and you might not know; or two Responsorial Psalms might be parts of the same psalm in the Psalter; or something that seems slightly strange might make perfect sense.  It’s often worth checking how the verses of one particular Responsorial Psalm are sited inside the whole psalm.  This is true especially when the stanzas chosen have been taken from various parts of the whole psalm, as it can change the thrust of the psalm completely.

Mostly checking the rest of the psalm is quite comforting, especially if the psalm is mournful, because it is rare to find a psalm that is unrelievedly gloomy (the great exception being Psalm 88/89), but there are also plenty of occasions where you discover that less edifying bits of the psalm have been quietly omitted.  The whole of human life genuinely is here, in the Book of Psalms, the bad bits as well as the good.  The Church often mercifully draws a veil over what you might call the unchristian bits of the psalms (curses etc.), but it does not remove them from the Book of Psalms, which is quite right.  The psalmists were human beings just like us, and not always edifying (even this can be comforting).

History psalms
Adam and Eve with serpent
all the legs still there (for now)

One of the functions of some of the psalms is to provide a summary of salvation history.  These psalms can be long, but they must have been a good way to give children a timeline of events.  When we were small, our parents sang in the car when we were travelling, and I remember one song in particular which retold Bible stories in a jokey way.  I can remember only a few of the verses, and I imagine my parents had forgotten several more, but it’s handy as a aide-mémoire.  Adam was the first man, and he lived all alone/ Till Eve was manufactured out of Adam’s collarbone/ One day in the Garden they were feeling rather bare/ So Adam put a figleaf on and Eve let down her hair. […]

Wicked Queen Jezebel first defenestrated and then trampled, 2 Kings 9

Jehu had a chariot of 90 horse-power/ He drove it round Jerusalem at 90 miles an hour/ Suddenly on pulling up, he heard an awful squeal /And found little bits of Jezebel a-sticking to the wheel.  […] Jonah was a landlubber who thought he’d like to sail/ so he booked an ocean passage on a trans-Atlantic whale/ sitting there inside for days, he felt a bit depressed/ so he simply pressed a button and the whale did the rest.[…]  David was a general, Uriah was his sub/ David saw Uriah’s wife undressing for a tub/ David sent Uriah to a front line trench/ Uriah stopped a hand grenade and David got the wench.  Unfortunately I can’t remember any more verses, but it’s a very common metre, so other bits of doggerel fit the tune, like the four liner about David and Solomon which ends  King Solomon wrote the Proverbs and David wrote the Psalms. Useful solid information, easily digested.

Jonah looking surprisingly calm
History psalms always have a message
penitential psalm illumination
David writing the psalms after sinning

Most of the psalms are a direct address to God by the psalmist, but history psalms imply a third person as listener, either children or just ‘people’, to be informed and instructed.  In the Jewish Bible tradition, I can’t imagine that these psalms wouldn’t have been used as a teaching aid, like the rhyming lists of kings and queens which British children used to memorise.  Some of the psalms address the audience directly (Come, children, and hear me, Ps 33/34; Come and hear, all who fear God, I will tell what he did, Ps 65/66).  Ps 77/78 is overtly a teaching psalm : Give heed, my people, to my teaching; […] I will open my mouth in a parable/ and reveal hidden lessons of the past.   Each generation must pass the knowledge on to the next so that they will obey God and never fall back into unfaithfulness (vv5ff). 

Stories and histories

Some psalms recount a potted version of national history, some are just stories, with a bigger moral and a smaller historical base, as in Psalm 106/107, where there are four stories, each with the same pattern. 

Seascape at night, storm
Mariners in peril

Each shows people in distress, and then God rescues them. First we have starving wanderers in the desert, then wretched prisoners, then some who ‘were sick on account of their sins’, and the last, slightly extended group is mariners in a storm at sea, where the psalmist goes into more detail (drawn from personal experience, maybe).  Each section ends with a similar stanza of praise, with the words tweaked to make them more pointed in each case, but you can imagine the audience joining in.  Other story psalms include Ps 17/18 (the rescue of a just man), and Ps 79/80 (the story of a vine and what happened to it). Ps 113/114 is an in-between case: it looks like history, but it’s only one episode; it starts to tell a story and then it gets sidetracked by the idols, but something strange has happened to the text here, and I don’t think we have it in the state in which the author wrote it.

Longer historical psalms

The main longer historical psalms are Ps 67/68, Ps 77/78, Ps 104/105,  and Ps 105/106, but there are also shorter ones (e.g. Ps 98/99), where only a short part of salvation history is covered.  In Ps 134/135 and Ps 135/136, the references are brief and partly because of the magic of names (as any child who has ever chanted Og, the king of Bashan could tell you, and I wrote about this to discuss Melchisedek).  There is a similar name list of enemies at Ps 82/83, indeed, two of them : one of current enemies, and one, more reassuring, or the enemies that God has already dealt with.  There is a geographical list in Psalm 86/87, and another in Ps 107/108.  People need to know their own history, and they need to know their own relevant local geography.  Then the names act almost as shorthand to evoke a common understanding.  Every nation does this.  Roncevalles; Waterloo; Culloden; Gettysburg.  Massah; Meribah; Mount Sion.

The story of Joseph, told twice
no need to be jealous, with these gorgeous garments

When one of the history psalms is used as a Responsorial, it can be done very simply by extracting a self-contained section, with no editing.  Friday of the second week of Lent uses a small piece (vv. 16-21) of Psalm 104/105 to offer a neat precis of the story of Joseph after a longer but less complete narrative in the first reading, which fills in all the beginning of the story but stops at the point where Joseph is carried off to Egypt as a slave.  The Psalm finishes the story.  In three short stanzas, we discover that things get even worse for Joseph, but then the king releases and honours him.  It would be difficult to give this information any more quickly and efficiently.  There is not a single adjective; the narration is almost bald, almost like something from Mr Gradgrind, nothing but facts, not lyrical poetry by any calculation.  The same thing happens on the Thursday of the fourth week of Lent, where the first reading tells the story of Moses begging God to be merciful after the Israelites in the desert have made themselves a golden calf to worship.  This is Psalm 105/106, and again what we have is three tight little stanzas lifted straight out(vv. 19-23), which tell the story with great economy.

history of Joseph
Joseph again, but more modern

This means you need a simple tune.  It’s similar to the section of Psalm 49/50, where God recites all his possessions, which always makes me think of The farmer’s in his den,  a children’s song.   God just keeps on listing all his possessions to show that he doesn’t need lip-service from anyone.  When I first set it, I gave it a sort of folk song or nursery rhyme feel, because it seemed appropriate, but the same psalm has come up two or three times recently, and the mood is darkening, as we move away from ‘I own all the beasts of the forests,[…]all the birds in the sky’ towards ‘you who sit and malign your brother’, moving from externals to internals.  I may have to write a new tune.  I’d already done one less jaunty, when the Response changed to a more dignified ‘Offer to God a sacrifice of praise’, but I may need to go darker.

How to set (and sing) the history Responsorials

With the two history psalms I’m looking at, I need the tune to be simple but workmanlike.  They are not lyrical psalms, just plain chunks of information, where the facts of the story are what matter, not the mood.  I’m not trying to emphasize any aspect, just to encourage people to join in and think about the story as it is told.  There isn’t time to dwell on Joseph’s experience, becaue the story moves on too quickly.  The only thing to do is to keep it neat and simple, let the words be clear, and set the mood in the Response so that the congregation can pray with it as the answer to the stanzas.  After all, the music needs to follow the style of the words; and if this particular psalmist, in a poetic tradition of development and parallelism, has chosen to give a terse account, I don’t want to embroider it just for the sake of it.

A way to bring people together

I started by saying there are all sorts of psalms, very consciously composed to use their form to enhance the words : lyrical laments, stirring war songs, jubilant repetitious victory songs and others.  But the history psalms are different.  They are accounts of the salient points of Israel’s history, the bits that need to be passed on to the next generation and the next.  They repeat the same events, over and over again, because these are the building blocks of Israel’s identity.  Like my jokey Bible song, these are the stories that every Jewish child (and now any other religion of the Book) needs to have absorbed, to know who they are, to know their own context.  They also give a rock solid base for trusting in the Lord to protect and save us, as he has always done…..and here are the examples.

Law in 2 scrolls
a beloved narrative

©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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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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