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Psalm 42

This week we discuss the many settings of Psalm 42, "As pants the hart." Also, a new release by Brandywine Baroque.

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Photo: Anonymous

Dieterich Buxtehude (on left), composed a setting of Psalm 42 "Quemadmodum desiderat cervus."

There are many songs to be found in the Bible. Of the wealthiest concentration, you probably have to look no further than the Book of Psalms found in the Old Testament. They are said to have been written by King David. For many hundreds of years now, both Christian and Jewish traditions have used the psalms in spoken and sung worship.

The word itself comes from the Greek psalmoi, which originally referred to songs that were sung to harp accompaniment — a more than obvious hint to their initial performance tradition.

And while the joining of words and music is nothing new, you’d be surprised to find out how often the Psalms have been set to music over the past hundreds of years.

Of the 150 found in the Book of Psalms, there are many that have been composer favorites. One little-known gem is the plaintive Psalm 42, which begins like this…

As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.

Palestrina was one of the more prominent Renaissance composers to set Psalm 42 for choir. He, however, uses the Latin word sicut, instead of quemadmodum, to begin the work. Nevertheless, both mean the same thing, “just as.”

In the French baroque, composers such as Henri Du Mont and André Campra set psalms for smaller forces than a full choir.

Psalm 42 was also set frequently by German composers.  Arguably one of the most beautiful is by Dietrich Buxtehude, who kept it relatively simple with one voice, two violins, and continuo. He also composed it over a ground bass, or a “Ciaccona.”

George Frideric Handel’s take on Psalm 42 was composed while he was in the service of the Duke of Chandos.  His setting, akin to Palestrina’s, is for chorus yet it has many distinct sections.

Our new release of the week moves from vocal music to the strictly instrumental.  The French baroque cello repertoire is highlighted in a recent recording on the Plectra label.  Selections from Joseph Bodin de Boismortier’s cello sonatas are given a lively reading by members of Brandywine Baroque, featuring Douglas McNames as soloist.

The music heard in this episode was performed by His Majestie’s Clerkes, Choir of Westminster Cathedral, Purcell Quartet, Ricercar Consort, Les Arts Florissants, and The Sixteen.

William Billings: As the Hart panteth
His Majestie's Clerkes, Paul Hillier, dir. — Early American Choral Music, Vol. 1: Anthems and Fuging Music of William Billings (HMU, 2001)
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Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: Sicut cervus desiderat
Choir of Westinster Chathedral, James O'Donnell, dir. — Giovanna Pierluigi da Palestrina (Hyperion, 1991)
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Henri Du Mont: Quemadmodum desiderat cervus
Ricercar Consort — Motets a Deux Voix (RIC, 1989)
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André Campra: Quemadmodum desiderat cervus
Paul Agnew, tenor, and Les Arts Florrisssants, William Christie, dir. — Petits Motets (Virgin Classics, 2005)
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Dietrich Buxtehude: Quemadmodum desiderat BuxWV 92
Purcell Quartet — Sacred Cantatas, Vol. 2 (CHAN, 2005)
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George Frideric Handel: Anthem 6: As pants the hart for cooling streams (excerpts)Anthem 6: As pants the hart for cooling streams (excerpts)
The Sixteen Choir and Orchestra, Harry Christophers, dir. — Chandos Anthems, Vol. 2 (MHS, 1991)
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Joseph Bodin de Boismortier: Sonata Ia in E minor, op. 50
Douglas McNames, cello, and Brandywine Baroque, Karen Flint, dir. — Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, Cello Sonatas, op. 26 & 50 (Plectra [], 2007)
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Bernard Gordillo

Bernard Gordillo was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and raised in New Orleans. He holds degrees from Centenary College of Louisiana, the Early Music Institute at Indiana University, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London). Bernard also writes and hosts the Harmonia Early Music Podcast.

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