8 Psalms

In this chapter you will

  • revisit the large collection of song lyrics within the Bible known as the Psalms
  • compare their historic liturgical use with their treatment as art music

Whole courses have been taught on the Psalms alone. Whole books can be written just on how one particular psalm has been given different musical treatments. But by the time it was published, it would already be obsolete, as new settings would have appeared in the interim—not that any book on even just one psalm would manage to be comprehensive. We have had the occasion to mention the Psalms repeatedly throughout this book already. They are important among the earliest evidence related to music in the biblical tradition, even though there may be yet older texts and references to music embedded here and there in the Torah. The early chapters of this book highlighted their importance in Jewish liturgy, in Orthodox and Catholic liturgy and monastic practice, and when arranged metrically and thereby turned into hymns in Protestantism.[1] Still more can be said and—more importantly in this context—listened to.

Richard Taruskin writes in The Oxford History of Western Music,

An important aspect of the monastic regimen was staying up at night, a discipline known as the vigil. To help them keep awake and to assist their meditations, monks would read and recite constantly, chiefly from the Bible, and particularly from the Psalter. The standard practice, eventually turned into a rule, was to recite the Psalter in an endless cycle, somewhat in the manner of a mantra, to distract the mind from physical appetites, to fill the back of the mind with spiritually edifying concepts so as to free the higher levels of consciousness (the intellectus, as it was called) for mystical enlightenment.…

Christian psalmody emphasized not metaphors of wealth and exuberance (the orchestras, dancers, and multiple choirs of the Temple) but metaphors of community and discipline, both symbolized at once by unaccompanied singing in unison. That remained the Gregorian ideal, although the community of worshipers was replaced in the more public repertory of the Mass by the specially trained.…Monophony was thus a choice, not a necessity. It reflects not the primitive origins of music (as the chant’s status as oldest surviving repertory might all too easily suggest) but the actual rejection of earlier practices, both Judaic and pagan, that were far more elaborate and presumably polyphonic.[2]

Composers have set the Psalms for liturgical use as well as simply as expressions of their own musicality. The Milken Archive has examples with commentary from a young Leonard Bernstein (Psalm 148) and from contemporary composer Ofer Ben-Amots (Psalm 81). You may also wish to listen now to the Psalm settings by Lili Boulanger in chapter 29.

While often the entirety of a psalm has been set to music, sometimes parts are left out. This may be done for any number of reasons, but whatever the motivation, the resulting song and its lyrics deserve to be considered not only as a “setting” of the text but also as a new composition heard both on its own terms and with consideration of what has been omitted. An excellent example is Psalm 137. Many know it as a reggae or pop song (depending on whether their musical tastes incline them more toward the Melodians, Boney M, or Sublime). That version understandably omits the mention of dashing Babylonian infants against rocks. The reggae version also has some differences in wording that reflect the Rastafarian context in which the song was written. Other settings, such as Pelham Humfrey’s from the seventeenth century, keep the words, as does Mario Davidovsky’s Biblical Songs, which includes this psalm along with settings of other biblical texts.[3] In this latter instance, it is interesting that the composer chose small portions of other texts yet included the entirety of this psalm, switching to Hebrew in the middle and then back to English again.

Among the Psalms, one finds some of the most accessible and familiar parts of the Bible and some that may seem particularly troubling. Imprecatory psalms—that is, psalms that curse or wish ill upon enemies—can be difficult for some who come to the Bible expecting it to be divine words rather than human ones. When we recognize that the psalmist behind Psalm 137 had lost his or her own children in the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, we understand the raw emotion expressed in this lament in a new light. It is not merely wishing others harm but a desire for those who caused pain to be made to feel that pain themselves. In some cases, the expression of the desire in this way may lead one to pull back and resist the urge to repay in kind. Complaining is embraced in some traditions as an important aspect of biblical piety, while in others its psychological and spiritual benefits are liable to remain unexplored, at least in formal religious settings.

Sometimes a composer opts to set just a portion of a psalm, perhaps even a small one. Herbert Howells has set Psalm 42:1–3, Psalm 84:9–10, and Psalm 118:24. Issachar Miron’s Psalms of Israel features small portions of several psalms set in the original Hebrew. In these cases, listeners should reflect on how the meaning of the words changes not only through the addition of music but through the omission of words. So too when a composer sets more than one psalm as part of a larger work, the question of what meaning emerges not only from the interplay of music and text but from the juxtaposition of multiple texts deserves reflection. One famous example that you should listen to is Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Here is a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with the Chicago Symphony Chorus and Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus, conducted by Sir Georg Solti.[4]

In places, Stravinsky sets the words in a way that goes against the grain of the natural rhythms of the text or connectedness of words, allowing his musical goals to predominate. While Stravinsky created a symphony from parts of several psalms, some composers have made a single psalm the focus of a symphony. Both Carlos Riesco and Archibald James Potter have composed works titled Sinfonia “De Profundis.” That is the Latin title of a great many settings of Psalm 130, including those by Lili Boulanger and Arnold Schoenberg mentioned elsewhere in the book (John Rutter’s Requiem also includes a setting of this psalm in English as one of its movements). It might be possible to miss that certain works are settings of psalms or other Scripture—for instance, if one did not translate the Latin title of G. F. Handel’s Dixit Dominus (Psalm 110, “The Lord Said”). Whole projects dedicated to setting and recording the Psalms continue to appear. Individual artists such as Poor Bishop Hooper have set out to write and record a song setting of every psalm. Contemporary composers like Tamás Beischer-Matyó have set multiple psalms. Having set out to create a setting of every psalm, Beischer-Matyó found after several that his compositional interests had shifted in a different direction (although he may one day return to the Psalms and even complete the project at some point). After setting Psalm 1 and Psalm 23, Beischer-Matyó found when working on Psalm 6 that his entire approach to composition shifted as a result of his engagement with the biblical text and the act of interpreting it musically.[5] In other chapters, we find something similar in the lives of other composers—how the process of setting a particular text was associated with a major change of direction in their musical style as well.[6]

One could spend a lot of time just comparing two relatively recent settings of Psalm 84, such as those by Victoria Bond and the Philippines-based Jesuit group Himig Heswita. Bond’s decision to set this particular psalm was influenced by the way it features prominently in Brahms’s Requiem (which is discussed elsewhere in this book). On her website, Bond describes the way she decided to allow the Hebrew text and a range of possible English translations interact among the voices in her composition. She writes, “Counterpoint forms the basis of my musical language in this setting, it being a traditional technique favored by Baroque composers. Counterpoint was also a useful tool to express the multiplicity of translations, perspectives and moods I wanted to illuminate. The voices unify only during the communal prayer-like settings of the opening text.”[7] Have a listen.[8]

One can also spend extended amounts of time comparing what the same composer has done with two different psalms, such as (in addition to several already mentioned) Cyrillus Kreek’s settings of Psalm 22 and Psalm 137—both laments with many resonances with and connections to other parts of the Bible. Consider also David Hurd’s settings of Psalm 51 (“Miserere Mei, Deus”) and Psalm 100, which feel very different in keeping with the different moods of the words.[9]

There are interviews with Dr. David Hurd that will introduce you to more of his music as well as aspects of his life and work as a composer, and they are highly recommended.

In this chapter, more than perhaps any other, hopefully it will be clear that your exploration may begin here, with the Psalms and/or with this book, but if it ends here, it will miss a lot that is beautiful and fascinating. To further explore how the Psalms have found expression in a wide variety of styles and genres, have a listen to U2’s song “40,” Dr. Nathan M. Carter’s several Psalm settings, Ian White’s several albums, Steve Reich’s “Tehillim,” Kim Hill’s song “Psalm 1,” Jah Woosh’s reggae setting of Psalm 121, one of Brazilian gospel artist Diante do Trono’s versions of the Psalms, and any of the many rap versions of the Psalms (which have important characteristics that bring us closer to ancient chanting practices than other musical approaches do).[10] All are contemporary and together illustrate how different the results can be when the words of the Psalms from ancient Israel are conjoined to music of another age, allowing them to be heard and sung in a fresh way. They provide an opportunity to reflect on whether and to what extent these varied songs may allow today’s listener to get a slight inkling of what the Psalms were like for those who first wrote, sang, and heard them thousands of years ago.

For Further Reading

Bailey, Marc. “Psalmic Music in Orthodox Liturgy as Foundation, Movement, and Ministry (Part 1).” Jacob’s Well, Spring–Summer 2000, 21–25. https://web.archive.org/web/20210515224439/https://jacwell.org/Summer_2000/psalmic_music_in_orthodox_liturg.htm.

Bell, John. “The Lost Tradition of Lament.” In Composing Music for Worship, edited by Stephen Darlington and Alan Kreider, 104–16. Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2003.

Brown, William P., ed. The Oxford Handbook of the Psalms. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Holladay, William L. The Psalms through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993.

Riesco, Carlos. “Historia de una Sinfonía.” Revista Musical Chilena 39, no. 164 (1985): 80–103.

Smith, Mark S. Psalms: The Divine Journey. New York: Paulist, 1987.

Stern, Max. Psalms and Music: Influences of the Psalms on Western Music. Brooklyn: KTAV, 2013.

Zak, Rose A. “Dialogue and Discourse in Stravinsky’s ‘Symphony of Psalms.’” Criticism 22, no. 4 (1980): 357–75.

Zinar, Ruth. “Stravinsky and His Latin Texts.” College Music Symposium 18, no. 2 (1978): 176–88.


  1. In addition to the chapter on metrical psalms in this book, see also Janet Wootton’s discussion of Isaac Watts and several other hymnwriters who set and drew on Scripture in her chapter, “The Future of the Hymn,” in Composing Music for Worship, ed. Stephen Darlington and Alan Kreider (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2003), 117–40 (especially 120–21).
  2. Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, vol. 1, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-001007.xml.
  3. Davidovsky has also set parts of the Song of Songs to music in his Shulamit’s Dream and Scenes from Shir ha-Shirim.
  4. Licensed to YouTube by UMG on behalf of Decca.
  5. This information comes from a personal conversation with the composer, to whom the author is extremely grateful for his input.
  6. Arvo Pärt and Arnold Schoenberg provide particularly interesting and important examples.
  7. Victoria Bond, “Repertoire: How Lovely Is Your Dwelling Place (Psalm 84),” https://www.victoriabond.com/artist.php?view=reper&rid=2776. Counterpoint is when two melodic lines move independently of one another in music. The Baroque era is explained further in chapter 25 on Bach.
  8. Shared on YouTube by the composer Victoria Bond, the video is of a performance on November 23, 2014, at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, featuring the combined choirs of Temple Emanu-El and the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, conducted by Kent Tritle.
  9. Two recordings follow. The first is a recording of a performance of David Hurd’s “Miserere Mei, Deus” at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, Oregon. Licensed to YouTube by the Orchard. The second is a recording of Hurd’s “Psalm 100” performed by the Singers, Minnesota Choral Artists. The recording is shared on YouTube by its publisher, E. C. Schirmer.
  10. On the phenomenon of Brazilian gospel music, see Philip Jenkins’s article “Brazil’s Diverse Música Gospel,” Christian Century, November 12, 2021, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/notes-global-church/brazil-s-explosion-m-sica-gospel. If you feel that microtonal music has been neglected, listen to Mordecai Sandberg’s setting of Psalm 130.


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The Bible and Music by James F. McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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