Psalm and Penitence

In preparation for Our Lord’s passion next week, the lectionary readings today (Mar. 22) include a portion of that great penitential psalm, Psalm 51, which is also the specially appointed psalm for Ash Wednesday each year. This psalm is often called the Miserere, referring to its first line in Latin, Miserere mei, Deus (“Have mercy on me, O God”).

Not surprisingly, composers throughout the ages have latched onto this most penitential psalm. From Josquin des Prez (1503) to Gregorio Allegri’s setting for the Sistine Chapel Choir (ca. 1630) to 20th-century minimalist Arvo Part (1989), the depth of humility and repentance of this text has drawn composers to it. Nineteenth-century composer Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876) chose to begin with Psalm 51:2 for his setting, which is the Offertory anthem for this morning. The musical texture of this setting ranges from a high, pleading “Wash me throughly” to the melodic depths of “For I acknowledge my faults.” After beautiful counterpoint and four-part choral textures, the anthem’s ending, with the full choir singing sotto voce and in unison, is quite spell-binding.

Samuel Sebastian Wesley.

Samuel Sebastian Wesley.

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