As early as the 6th century, medieval Christians began grouping particular psalms together that all confessed sorrow over sin and pleaded for forgiveness from God. Augustine had originally identified four of these psalms, and a couple hundred years later the list had grown to seven. Christians came to call these seven psalms–6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143–the “Penitential Psalms of David” (Psalmi Davidis poenitentiales). Again, Psalm 130, “De Profundis,” was included among these psalms. During the Renaissance, some composers, including Andrea Gabrieli (1532/3 — 1585), set these seven psalms to music for sacred worship.
Orlande de Lassus (c. 1532 — 1594), a composer nearly of the influence as Palestrina in the 16th century, was one of these composers, though one who all his life was devoted to the bishop of Rome. It is his setting that is the most famous of these penitential psalm collections. Indeed, his setting of Psalm 130 is seen by some as the pinnacle of the entire set. Lassus’s interpretation is marked by simplicity in the midst of complexity, and we hear there a distinct sense of the text.
De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine;
Domine, exaudi vocem meam.
Fiant aures tuæ intendentes
in vocem deprecationis meæ.
Si iniquitates observaveris, Domine,
Domine, quis sustinebit?
Quia apud te propitiatio est;
et propter legem tuam
sustinui te, Domine. Sustinuit anima mea
in verbo ejus:
Speravit anima mea in Domino.
A custodia matutina usque ad noctem,
speret Israël in Domino.
Quia apud Dominum misericordia,
et copiosa apud eum redemptio.
Et ipse redimet Israël
ex omnibus iniquitatibus ejus.
Here is the Vokal Ensemble München, directed by Martin Zöbeley singing de Lassus’s version.
Lassus, of course, was working in a very volatile time, in the midst of the counter-Reformation. The Reformation had itself produced its own settings of this hymn, in much simpler versions for congregations to sing the hymn in their own tongue. The first of these came from Martin Luther (1483-1546) himself in 1524. It would later be sung at Luther’s own funeral service at Halle in 1546. Here is Catherine Winkworth’s 1861 translation of Luther’s Aus Tiefer Not:
Out of the depths I cry to thee,
Lord God! oh hear my prayer!
Incline a gracious ear to me,
And bid me not despair:
If Thou rememberest each misdeed,
If each should have its righteous meed,
Lord, who shall stand before Thee?
‘Tis through Thy love alone we gain
The pardon of our sin;
The strictest life is but in vain,
Our works can nothing win,
That none should boast himself of aught,
But own in fear Thy grace hath wrought
What in him seemeth righteous.
Wherefore my hope is in the Lord,
My works I count but dust,
I build not there, but on His word,
And in His goodness trust.
Up to His care myself I yield,
He is my tower, my rock, my shield,
And for His help I tarry.
And though it linger till the night,
And round again till morn,
My heart shall ne’er mistrust Thy might,
Nor count itself forlorn.
Do thus, O ye of Israel’s seed,
Ye of the Spirit born indeed,
Wait for your God’s appearing.
Though great our sins and sore our wounds,
And deep and dark our fall,
His helping mercy hath no bounds,
His love surpasseth all.
Our trusty loving Shepherd He,
Who shall at last set Israel free
From all their sin and sorrow.
The text itself is worth comment. The second and third stanzas add distinct notes of New Testament grace through Christ’s justifying work “not by works.” But Luther was not content to paraphrase the Psalm with his Reformation emphasis on grace; he also composed the music to which it to be sung, but we find again, despite the clearly simpler sound, great continuity with the other settings we have heard. Here is the same ensemble who sang the Lassus above singing Luther’s work in the original German:
Here’s how that same hymn sounds in a Lutheran church today:
Next week we will continue to look at settings of Psalm 130 during this period.