Penitential Psalms

The Penitential Psalms or Psalms of Confession, so named in Cassiodorus's commentary of the 6th century AD, are the Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143 (6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142 in the Septuagint numbering).

These psalms are expressive of sorrow for sin. Four were known as 'penitential psalms' by St. Augustine of Hippo in the early 5th century. The fifty-first Psalm (Miserere) was recited at the close of daily morning service in the primitive Church. Translations of the penitential psalms were undertaken by some of the greatest poets in Renaissance England, including Sir Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and Sir Philip Sidney. Before the suppression of the minor orders and tonsure in 1972 by Paul VI, the seven penitential psalms were assigned to new clerics after having been tonsured.[1]

Musical settings

Perhaps the most famous musical setting of all seven is by Orlande de Lassus, with his Psalmi Davidis poenitentiales of 1584. There are also fine settings by Andrea Gabrieli and by Giovanni Croce. The Croce pieces are unique in being settings of Italian sonnet-form translations of the Psalms by Francesco Bembo. These were widely distributed; they were translated into English and published in London as Musica Sacra; and were even translated (back) into Latin and published in Nürnberg as Septem Psalmi poenitentiales. William Byrd set all seven Psalms in English versions for three voices in his Songs of Sundrie Natures (1589). Settings of individual penitential psalms have been written by many composers. Well-known settings of the Miserere (Psalm 51) include those by Gregorio Allegri and Josquin des Prez; yet another is by Bach. Settings of the De profundis (Psalm 130) include two in the Renaissance by Josquin.


  1. Ordinations, Alleluia Press, 1962. See also the Pontificalia Romanum.

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