Orlande de Lassus : dare spirito alle parole

The seven Penitential Psalms are a group of Psalms, numbers 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143 in the Anglican numbering (in the Vulgate all except Psalm 6 are numbered one digit lower), which have been in liturgical use for penitential prayer since early Christian times and, in the later Middle Ages, were prescribed to be recited after Lauds on Fridays in Lent. In the Book of Common Prayer they are appointed as Proper Psalms for Ash Wednesday, the first three at Matins, Psalm 51 at the Commination and the last three at Evensong. In the post-Tridentine Roman Catholic liturgy, as established by the Missal issued by Pius V in 1570, more extensive use is made of the Penitential Psalms; this is described below under the heading of each Psalm. The Munich Court, which had hitherto followed the rite of the diocese of Freising, adopted the Tridentine liturgy at Christmas 1581. (Jon Dixon, CD Booklet, Hyperion.)

Orlande de Lassus and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina are two of the major lights of the Renaissance, but they are sometimes contrasted as composers exhibiting almost opposite temperaments.  Palestrina was a contrapuntal perfectionist writing music of serene austerity but drawing inspiration from a well of deep spirituality.  Whereas Lassus has been described as the consummate humanist, a composer whose music reflected and refracted the emotions of a text like sunlight on the surface of a river.

This aspect of Lassus’s has been called “word painting”, a bland and hackneyed phrase to describe the technique which reached fruition during the Renaissance.  A different phrase popular during Lassus’s period is  musica reservata which roughly means  “music which closely resembles the text”.  Another, possibly even more apt, description is dare spirito alle parole, or “giving living spirit to the word.”  None of Lassus’s works exhibit this last phrase more so than his Penitential Psalms.

In the fifth psalm, lasting over 25 minutes, Lassus mirrors each new image of the poetry in the music, each melodic phrase matching the characteristics of the text.

For example in the first phrase he goes from a homophonic, syllabic, texture to a climbing polyphonic sequence to demonstrate the the psalm’s first verse: “Hear my prayer, Lord, and let me cry come unto Thee.”

Henry’s Eight: Psalm 5 – “Hear my prayer, Lord …”

A little further on with the line, “in the day when I call answer me” he writes imitatively for two voices.

Henry’s Eight: Psalm 5 – “in the day when I call …”

Each Psalm takes its ‘mode’ (or ‘tonality’) from one of the sequence of eight ‘modes’ by which plainchant had come to be categorized. Lassus solves the problem of what to do with the eighth mode by amalgamating two of the so-called ‘Laudate’ Psalms (those beginning with the word ‘Laudate’—an instruction to the people to praise God) into a work full of vitality. Although having absolutely no liturgical link with the Penitential Psalms, Lassus published all eight works together, perhaps exactly because they are so different in mood.

Henry’s Eight: Laudate Psalm

Throughout these psalms Lassus suddenly changes the pace and intensity, and texture, all examples of giving spirit to the text.  These techniques were acknowledged by Paul Schede, a friend of the composer, with these lines:

Now dost make in slow step the voices drag, hesitate
Now again hasting, speedy dost drive the rhythms on.
Now jubilant, now restrained, as the words require …

Henry’s Eight: Penitential Psalm No. 2

Lassus Penitential PsalmsTo purchase

Orlande de LassusPenitential Psalms
Henry’s Eight

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