Joyce Kelley

Music 250

R. Freedman

April 2, 1997


Lassus' and Josquin's Paintings of Psalm 51


The tradition of penitential prayer dates back to early Middle Eastern culture. "Deeply rooted in Jewish religious practice," the tradition was eventually adopted into Christianity (Leuchmann 11). Among the many passages in the Bible suitable for penitential prayer, the Penitential Psalms stand out in stark relief, and have done so in Christian worship since at least the 6th century A.D. (Leuchtmann ). In his preface to Lassus' Penitential Psalms, Berquist writes that Lassus was probably the first composer to set the Penitential Psalms to music as a coherent group. This is surprising due to the fact that these seven psalms, expressing ideas of sin and repentance, were set apart and lauded so early in the history of the Church. However, individuals psalms of his cycle had been set to music before; for example, Josquin de Pres had already set to music the fourth psalm of Lassus' set of seven, psalm 51 (50 in some accounts), the century before. Psalm 51 traditionally is used for funeral services, and also "occurs liturgically on each of the three days before Easter" (Hillier 5). The text holds one of the most profound analyses of sin and renewal to be found in the Bible; it opens before us "the double mystery of sin consciousness and of reconciliation with God" (Terrien 171). In the words of Martin Luther, it helps us to "look in the hearts of all saints," to understand the dedicated cleansing of the soul and the ultimate redemption" (quoted in Terrien 171). One can only imagine that such an important text would have varied interpretations, and consequently that each composer would take a different approach to the text. Indeed, this proves to be the case; Lassus' and Josquin's presentations of the psalm through music are vastly different in form. These dramatically varying overall structures demonstrate the different ways that the composers conceptualized the text as a whole; however, in looking more closely at the composers' settings of the individual words, we can see that the men did share similar ideas that are reflected in their "painting" of the text itself.

First, let us take an overall view of each text separately, beginning with the Lassus. When Lassus finally arranged this text to music, his employer, the duke Albrecht V of Bavaria, prized the work so highly that he reserved it for his own ear, forbidding any public circulation. Lassus' approach to the text encouraged the publication of a book fit to inscribe it, for Lassus took amazing steps to illuminate the words of his text with his music. The Duke had the Psalms copied in one of the most expensive manuscripts ever made; "an enormous sum was expended on the illuminations, the copying. . . and the gold clasps" (Berquist vii), and the volumes included elaborate portraits of Lassus and the Duke's family and numerous illustrations of the text itself. His effort demonstrates the high value of Lassus' great work, prized and lauded as much today as it was in the sixteenth century.

Lassus divides each psalm of his large work into numerous smaller divisions, approximately by verse, which he sets in the manner of motets. His settings all are based on a system of five parts; all have soprano, alto, two tenors, and bass, with the exception of the psalm of our interest, 51, which has two bass parts (quinta vox and bassus). Perhaps Lassus wished to add darker tones to this particular work to set off its especially somber passages. In certain verses, he employs fewer singers to add variety to his work; for example, in verse nine of psalm 51 he calls for only tenor and bass, and in verse 17 he writes for only tenor, quinta vox, and bass. He ends each psalm with the lesser doxology, which he divides into two parts; as Leuchtmann points out, the first section, the "Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto" ends on an imperfect cadence, which is resolved by the second section, the "sicut erat in principio. . ." (13). The former of these endings Lassus writes in five parts, the latter he writes in six, dividing the soprano line into parts I and II.

Lassus' setting of psalm 51 contains 22 verses, the 20 of the original text followed by the two of the lesser doxology. His tone ranges from the solemn and mournful to the sweet and jubilant, matching the varied tones of the text itself. The music never becomes weighed down by sadness or sorrow, for Lassus continually looks ahead to the hope of redemption and the joy of salvation. His greatest emphasis lies in the "painting" of the text itself; as Berquist asserts, "almost every individual psalm verse exhibits some kind of musical illustration of the text" (Berquist ix). Brown writes that "more than any of the other great composers of the late sixteenth century. . . Lasso understood that the words were to be master of the music" (314).

In contrast, Josquin takes a more innovative approach to the form of the text itself. Josquin composed his version of psalm 51, "Miserere mei Deus" at the request of the duke Ferrariae. This work of "massive proportions and imposing intensity" is considered to be one of Josquin's greatest masterpieces (Hillier 5). Josquin's work contains the twenty verses of the psalm with no added material; however, he concludes each verse with a new setting of the beginning of the first verse, "Misere mei, deus." One particular verse, verse 13, is even interrupted in the middle to insert this favorite refrain of Josquin's. It seems obvious that the composer must have considered the first line of this psalm to be of incredible importance, in and of itself and in relation to the rest of the text, for he refuses to continue on to any verse without reinvoking it. This first phrase, translating "have mercy on me, O God," is a cry for compassion. At once the speaker "grasps the hopelessness of the human situation and the true nature of the deity" (Terrien 169). Perhaps Josquin calls to our attention this initial statement throughout to remind us that every verse of this psalm is a plea to God to be cleansed and redeemed, something that can be accomplished only through God's mercy. The man stands defenseless before his God, and in his initial statement is "utter humiliation" but also "utter confidence" (Terrien 170). Just so, Josquin's refrain varies from the dark and sinister to the joyful.

Another interpretation of Josquin's involves his division of the text into three distinct parts, separating the verses into lines 1-8, 9-15, and 16-20. These divisions demonstrate how Josquin conceived the text as a whole. Perhaps his first section he viewed as the confession of the sin and the cleansing of that sin, concluding with the sprinkling of the hyssop in verse eight to make the speaker "whiter than snow." The second section seems to consist of the joy of salvation, while the third concerns the dedication to God's ways, the open declaration of praise, and the sacrifice. Thus, more than Lassus, Josquin presents his own religious interpretation of the psalm.

Josquin's "Misere mei, Deus" has five voice parts: soprano, alto, first tenor, second tenor, and bass. Unlike Lassus, however, these five parts sing together only on the "Misere mei deus" refrain. The verses all are made up of combinations of singers 1, 2, 4, and 5, and usually are sung either as a duet or as an alternation of two duets (for example, the soprano and second tenor sing a phrase and then are followed by the alto and bass). There seems to be no identifiable pattern to these combinations, except in Josquin's third section, where there is a palindromic pattern of all four voices, 1/4 and 2/5, 1/2 and 4/5, 1/4 and 2/5, and then all four again. Josquin gives the third voice, the first tenor, a unique role. Although he never joins in the singing of the verses, it is his job to lead the "Misere" refrain each time and to retain the original rhythm and melody of the work's opening, which will be discussed momentarily. In section one, the first tenor begins on a high e and progresses down a note with each refrain until he reaches low e and completes the octave. Since there are only seven verses in this section, Josquin chooses to divide verse 13 into two parts, one placing the tenor on b and one on c. In section two, the first tenor begins on low e and gradually rises again to the higher octave, and in section three, with only five verses, he progresses halfway down the octave. He is the central unifying force throughout, the only part which one can anticipate and rely upon at all moments. Perhaps to Josquin this first tenor may even symbolize God, guiding and holding together the other parts.

Josquin's structural aspects also involve the interpretation of individual words. Josquin begins his piece on a hauntingly beautiful cantus firmus line in the second tenor, consisting of a dotted half followed by a quarter, four halves, and two whole notes (in modern notation). Each line enters a few measures after the last, demonstrating a "fugue-like" pattern. Each part retains the same note throughout the line, then at last rises a half step on the first syllable of "deus" (God) and returns to the original tone. In so doing, each produces an eerie, hollow sound, as the harmony created progresses from an open fifth to a minor sixth and then returns. This "eeriness" of tone is accentuated even more in the higher parts, as in measure 10 when the soprano enters. The melodic pattern adds an extra emphasis to the word "God," making it sound at once open, ethereal, and mysterious. The following lines on "secundum magnum. . ." in the soprano and alto ascend to the "ma" of magnum, meaning, appropriately, "great" or "high." Then, all at once, the parts enter in measure 19 with a great rush of emotion, displaying God's great mercy and loving kindness, intensified by the eighth note patterns in the soprano and alto parts (Josquin CD, example 1).* see note

In examining these settings of the individual verses of the psalm, we can see both composers "painting" the words with their music. At times, their interpretations are remarkably similar, and even when emphasizing different words they often show variations of the same idea. For example, in verse two, which translates "and according to the multitude of thy tender mercies, blot out my iniquity," Lassus sets the line very tenderly, illustrating these "tender mercies," allowing the soprano to rise out of the phrase, ascending to an a and then dropping to her e two beats after the others already have descended. All four voices come to unite on "dele" (blot out), and then Lassus adds a quarter rest in each part as if all has momentarily been deleted (Lassus CD, example 2a). Similarly, Josquin uses in this line only the top two voices, which rise together sweetly and angelically in quick eighth notes, illustrating the tenderness. He chooses to illustrate "dele" not with a rest as Lassus does but by hiding the alto's word beneath the soprano's part and then having the soprano sing quietly alone. The final effect is that the word is almost inaudible. (Josquin CD, example 2b). Here, both composers express similar ideas, but they do so in different ways.

In the third verse, both Lassus and Josquin place emphasis on "peccatum," error or sin, setting apart this word as if it is contaminating and truly needs to be washed! In the seventh verse, the composers place emphasis on different words but display the same underlying idea. The line reads "For behold thou hast loved truth: the uncertain and hidden things of thy wisdom thou hast made manifest to me." In the Lassus, the four voices unite on "veritatem," truth, and even more strongly on "manifestasti" as these hidden things reveal themselves. (Lassus CD, example 3a). Josquin chooses to emphasize not the "manifestasti" but the last word "mihi," me, with a swell of eighths. Thus he shows the hidden made manifest, but he places the emphasis on the seer of that truth and wisdom. (Josquin CD, example 3b). Something similar occurs in verse eight, when both composers illustrate "Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo" (thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop) with a sprinkling of eighth notes. However, Lassus has the alto and tenor "sprinkling" beneath the soprano line on "Asperges," meaning "to sprinkle," (Lassus CD, example 4a) while Josquin has the "sprinkling" occur on the "domine" in all parts, emphasizing the fact that God, "the master," is doing the sprinkling. (Josquin CD, example 4b). Thus it seems that while Lassus is painting "for fun" so to speak, Josquin is placing a greater emphasis on the religiosity of the words.

In the ninth verse, an amazing similarity occurs between the two musical depictions of the text. Lassus employs only the tenor and bass in this line, a rare choice for him. The line involves the rejoicing of humbled bones, and Lassus has the bass and tenor sing "et exulta" in fugue-style on a 1-2-1-4 (up a second, back, up a fourth) melodic pattern using three quarter notes followed by a half. The tenor sings the line and then the bass enters after a quarter rest, ringing out exultantly. (Lassus CD, example 5a). Eerily, Josquin does exactly the same on "et exulta," beginning with the second tenor and following with the bass. Perhaps both composers use these low parts to depict a scene of lowness or burial to illustrate the voices of the bones. Josquin even employs patterns of rhythm and melody identical to Lassus, his phrases ringing out joyfully like the call of a trumpet. (Josquin CD, example 5b). It seems incredible that these two men could have conceived of this line in exactly the same manner.

In contrast, an example of opposite interpretations formed by the two composers appears in verse thirteen. The text reads, "Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and strengthen me with a perfect spirit." Lassus finds great joy in these words; he has his singers voice "laetitiam," unrestrained gladness, three times, each time adding another part until all five voices unite in rhythmic unison. (Lassus CD, example 6a). Josquin takes a vastly different approach, repeating "confirma me" again and again in a high and pleading manner. Lassus anticipates the joy that will soon come to him; Josquin expresses the idea that the joy is not yet here but that it is something desperately wanted. (Josquin CD, example 6b.) Just like his repetition of "Have mercy on me, O God," Josquin reminds us that we are continually seeking God's mercy and forgiveness and anticipating redemption; never in the psalm is the speaker actually given that forgiveness he seeks.

A last notable example of text "painting" occurs in verse sixteen, where the text reads, "O Lord, thou wilt open my lips: and my mouth shall declare thy praise." In the Lassus, all the parts unite on "annuntiabit," annunciation, as the speaker declares his praise, his mouth open at last. (Lassus CD, example 7a). Josquin takes a more complex approach to illustrate a similar idea: he has all four parts sing on monotone pitches until they reach the "laudem tuam" (thy praise). Then the parts change, the singers opening their lips on the actual declaration of that praise. (Josquin CD, example 7b).

Thus, although the structures of these two works set to the text of Penitential Psalm 51 are vastly different, showing discrepancies in the composers' conceptions of the works, we see that both Lassus and Josquin employ text "painting" to emphasize similar places of importance. While these similarities serve to unify the two compositions, the overall impact of the music is remarkably different. Lassus is more the realist, illustrating the text as he sees it, matching the tones of the text with the tones of his music. In contrast, Josquin plays a more active role, shaping and coloring the text with his own religious interpretations. In the final glance, the works resemble two paintings of the same image, rendered by two different artists with varying perspectives. While the paintings share many of the same features, they are unmistakably distinct, each offering each own point of view and its own analysis of the scene.



*Please Note: For the listening section of this project, you will need the following CD's: MCD 100 #2, Lassus Penetential Psalms by the Hilliard Ensemble; CD412, Josquin de Pres's "Miserere mei Deus" also by the Hilliard Ensemble.


Works Cited


Peter Berquist, Preface to Orlando di Lasso, The Seven Penetential Psalms and Laudate Dominum de caelis, ed. P. Berquist, Recent Researches in the Music of the Renaissance, 86-87 (madison, 1990), pp. vii-xxi. Translations also from this source.

Howard M. Brown, Music in the Renaissance (Chicago: Prentice-Hall, 1976).

Paul Hillier, CD notes to Josquin's "Miserere mei Deus," pp. 5ff.

Leuchmann, CD notes to Lassus' Penitential Psalms, p. 11

Samuel Terrien, The Psalms and their Meaning Today (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1952) pp. 168-171.