Artful repentance

by Ken Myers

[This article originally appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of Touchstone magazine.]

The Psalms, C. S. Lewis reminds us, are poems, “and poems intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons.” Since they are lyrics, the psalms, Lewis insists, are characterized by “all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry.” We must always resist the temptation to reduce our reading of a psalm to a set of neatly contained bullet points, since the perception of meaning in poetry always requires our imaginative participation in the text. And singing usually helps.

We don’t have access to the music originally used to sing the psalms, but each era in the Church’s life has cultivated musical forms that strive to convey the existential point of view sustained in these sacred poems, which artfully commingle frustration, hope, sorrow, and praise. When the psalms are set to music, additional layers of formality are necessarily introduced, along with new dimensions for making emotional connections. The results are sometimes profound.

Psalm 51 (Psalm 50 in the Vulgate) is traditionally known by the first three words of the Latin text, Miserere mei, Deus, sometimes simply by the single word pleading for mercy: Miserere. In the Anglican rite, the Miserere is traditionally sung on Ash Wednesday, while in Catholic liturgies it is used during the last three days of Holy Week. The intensity and gravity of this psalm is amplified by the drama of its place in liturgical life, and for centuries numerous composers have responded to these nineteen memorable verses with masterpieces. The best known is probably the Miserere by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652), written sometime before 1638. Earlier (and, to my ears, more compelling) than any of the better-known settings of this psalm is one of the most famous works of the sixteenth century, the motet Miserere mei, Deus by Josquin des Prez (c.1450-1521). One of the most sought-after composers in Europe, Josquin was commissioned in 1503 by the deeply pious Duke of Ferrara to set down a musical expression of this moving text.

Powerful Repetition

In 1537, Nuremberg bookseller and music publisher Johannes Ott published an edition of motets by Josquin including Misereri mei, Deus. A year later, in a new edition, Ott enthused:

I ask whether anyone can listen to it so carelessly as not to be carried away in his whole mind and his whole spirit to a more careful contemplation of the prophet’s meaning, seeing that the melodies are adapted to the feelings of the man who is overwhelmed by the magnitude of his sins and that the very powerful repetition in which he cries for mercy does not permit the mind either to consider these things at leisure or not to be aroused to the hope that comes from trust.

While the main point of Ott’s testimonial is that this work demands careful listening — typically requiring over 15 minutes of sustained attentiveness — the phrase “powerful repetition” is worthy of further comment. It is the way Josquin employs patterns of repetition that conveys the intensity of the psalmist’s penitence.

Meaning in poetry is embedded in formalities as well as words. The principal formal element in Hebrew poetry is what scholars call “parallelism,” in which the second phrase in a verse repeats in different words what the first verse already stated. “Wash me throughly from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sin. . . . Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy Spirit from me” (Ps. 51:2, 11). In Reflections on the Psalms, C. S. Lewis describes the use of parallelism in Hebrew poetry as

a very pure example of what all pattern, and therefore all art, involves.  The principle of art has been defined by someone as “the same in the other.” Thus in a country dance you take three steps and then three steps again. That is the same. But the first three are to the right and the second three to the left. That is the other.

The powerful repetition Ott perceived in Josquin’s Miserere mei, Deus is another case in point of “the same in the other.” At the opening of this five-voice motet, we hear the second tenor line sing those eight syllables, each on the same note until the first syllable of “Deus,” which rises just a half-step — the slightest move possible in Western tonality — before coming back down for the final syllable. Before that tenor line is complete, the bass part enters with the same simple musical phrase (pitched down a perfect fifth), sighing upward with that penultimate syllable, and then back down just as the soprano line enters — the same in the other — an octave higher than the original tenor line.

When the soprano line gets to the fifth syllable, the alto enters, an octave higher than we heard the bass. The soprano and alto move on to the second phrase in the text with a different melodic theme, interacting in simple harmonies. Then a fifth voice is heard for the first time, another tenor line beginning on the E above middle C, singing that simple eight-syllable theme. Just as the the upper voices finish the first verse, that tenor comes back in with that eight-syllable motif, this time beginning a step lower — D above middle C — prompting the other four voices to join him in repeating that refrain, harmonizing with his simple intonation of the plea for mercy before going on to sing verse 2.

After the second verse, the fifth voice (starting now on middle C) repeats our familiar eight-note theme. At the end of every verse, that tenor returns with the refrain, each time moving down a note in the scale and drawing the other four parts into their more elaborate iteration of those three words. By verse 7, at the end of the first section of the piece, the intoning tenor is a full octave lower than he started. When verse 8 concludes, he intones “Miserere mei, Deus” again, this time beginning on the same E below middle C, but this time twice as fast as he had been chanting the phrase in the first section of the motet. And after each verse from 8 through 14, the tenor line enters a note higher until he’s back where he started, at E above middle C, before going back down in part three for the final five verses. For over 15 minutes, that tenor part has repeated the same three words twenty-one times in the same two-note melody. But it is as far from vain repetition as one could imagine.

A Careful Comfort

My description makes this formal feature seem mechanical and formulaic; you really need to hear the piece to feel how wrong that impression is. Far from sounding mechanical, this repetition and motion provide a fundamental dynamic that — along with several other simple formal devices Josquin employs — subtly drives this piece forward, giving sound to the facets of repentance and hope in this earnest plea for mercy. The truth of God’s mercy and the goodness of penitence is made even more attractive by the beauty of works such as Josquin’s Miserere mei, Deus. Contrary to modern prejudice, its formal character is not an enemy of sincere expression of devotion but a careful comfort assuring us of the beauty of holiness.

A recording of Josquin’s Miserere mei, Deus and discussion of a number of other settings of Psalm 51 are presented on this page.