By Peter Roberts
Psalm 51 is an excellent text to consider during Lent. It has also been set to music by numerous composers in varying styles, two of which I will briefly discuss. Readers might like to look up the famous ‘Misere Mei, Deus’ by Gregorio Allegri. Written during the Renaissance, it is an interesting early example of blended styles, drawing inspiration from Gregorian chant and from contemporary polyphony.
There’s more for the serious music student to delve into, but it’s an exquisite setting whose tone does justice to the text.
In contrast, I would also like to recommend Graham Kendrick’s simpler setting, titled ‘Psalm 51 – Have mercy on me, O God’. A much more modern version, with influences from Folk and the gentler side of that panoptic term ‘Pop’. While this style of hymn-writing may not be to everyone’s taste, it has clearly been written to make the text accessible to those who aren’t as familiar with it. It’s use of simple melody elements, hooks, and repetition allow music groups to adopt and adapt it with ease. Listeners will quickly pick it up, and it has been played by the AMDG group during Holy Communion at the 6:30 evening Mass on at least one occasion.
I realise that these suggestions will not be to everyone’s tastes – Allegri’s choral work presents a challenge to the listener, especially those of us who are not familiar with Latin. In a way, this seems appropriate – the messages of the scriptures present many challenges to those who wish to read and follow them. On the other hand, Mr Kendrick’s work is so keen not to alienate listeners that it skips large portions of the text. It seems plausible that its title includes the biblical reference so that people would be able to find the full text more easily. This approach too, makes sense – from Christ’s attitude towards outcasts and sinners to the tearing of the temple curtain, the messages of scripture are to be offered to everyone.