This is a series looking at how Psalm 130 has been set to music by the people of God throughout history. In my first installment, I simply observed different characteristics of the psalm, which is one of lament for sin, holy fear, and hope for redemption.
Of course, we are ultimately unsure of how Psalm 1301 would have originally sounded in ancient Israel. Twentieth century French musician and musicologist Suzanne Haik-Vantoura (1912-2000) devised a way of interpreting the cantillation marks in the Old Testament Psalms might be understood as musical notation. The validity of her opinions are controversial, but they offer a fascinating look at how the Psalms might have sounded. It is here that we want to begin our look at Psalm 130 in musical and liturgical history.
For the entire CD, see La Musique de la BIBLE revelee. It is important, again, to stress that this is a historical reconstruction and tenuous theory of how Psalm 130 would have been sung in antiquity. There is fitting representation of the lament for sin in the music (which again, is at least based on actual Psalm markings). Whatever ancient Jewish psalmody sounded like, we can be fairly certain that the earliest Christian music sounded very much like it.
A more concrete representation of an ancient singing of this Psalm (though from some time later) can be found in Gregorian chant. Gregory the Great (fl. 540-604) brought a great deal of organization to Christian music, simplifying it and removing rhythmic singing and harmony.
When you listen to the example, note that the psalm begins with the repetition of “Alleluia.” The text that follows is the first two lines of the psalm in Latin: De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine; [Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!] / Domine, exaudi vocem meam [Lord, hear my voice!]. The Psalm text is followed with a return to “Alleluia.”
Despite the uncertainty we have concerning Haik-Vantoura’s findings, there is still a marked similarity between Haik-Vantoura’s reconstruction and the chant below. The first two words of the Psalm in Latin, “De Profundis,” become a shorthand or nick-name for this Psalm.
Eventually, this Psalm would become part of the Western church’s “Divine Office,” a schedule of biblical psalms and scripture to be prayed or sung at specific points of the day. De Profundis is a “Gradual Psalm,” one of the Psalms sung as a response to the reading of an Epistle during High Mass in the Roman Catholic church, sung on the steps of the altar. It is almost always used in the “Office of the Dead” and often sung at Vespers. At very least we can assert from all this that Psalm 130 is a chapter of Scripture that has meant a lot to many Christians for many centuries. This tradition also made it become a staple in Western liturgical music.
Next week we hope to look at more late medieval and early Reformation settings of this Psalm.