Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year! Praise the Lord!

Because of differences between the numbering of Psalms in their Septuagint version versus their Masoretic text, a Roman Catholic like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) would have known it as Psalm 116, while Protestants call it Psalm 117. Under either nomenclature, it remains, at just two verses, the shortest Psalm in the Bible:
Every country in the world, praise the LORD!

All the people (in the world), praise him!
His kind love for us is very strong.

And he will always do what he has promised.

For all its brevity, the Psalm is not simple to translate. Here is the Hebrew original, with a literal translation beneath:

א הַלְלוּ אֶת-ה', כָּל-גּוֹיִם; שַׁבְּחוּהוּ, כָּל-הָאֻמִּים.
ב כִּי גָבַר עָלֵינוּ, חַסְדּוֹ-- וֶאֱמֶת-ה'לְעוֹלָם:

"Praise God all the peoples; laud Him all nations.
For His loving-kindness overcomes us; and truth God, mysteriously eternal, Praise God."
Contrasted in the second verse are two fundamental attributes of God: Chesed (Heb.: "loving-kindness"), and emet (Heb.: "truth, verity"). The former is all-encompassing, all-forgiving; the latter is absolute and never-changing. (For an outstanding exposition of the Psalm in light of these two poles of its composition, see this post.)

The only way I know to comprehend the depth of this two-line psalm, not having spent a lifetime immersed in the beauties of the Hebrew language, is to listen to a setting of it to music -- as it was intended originally to be heard (that is: sung, not spoken). And of all the settings of it which have been made over the centuries, there is surely none that matches this:


Laudate Dominum omnes gentes; laudate eum, omnes populi.
Quoniam confirmata est super nos misericordia ejus, et veritas
Domini manet in aeternum.

Gloria Patri et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio,
et nunc et semper, et in saecula seculorum. Amen.

This gem closes Mozart's Vesperae solennes de confessore (K. 339), most probably written for a liturgical occasion of great importance to his native Salzburg: the vespers performed on the feast day of St. Rupert (September 24) in 1780. (St. Rupert was the patron saint ["confessor"] of Salzburg, and along with St. Virgil was also the patron saint of its cathedral. You can read a fine study about the background for Mozart's composition by downloading this .pdf document.)

As commenter St. Nikao noted on an earlier post regarding Beethoven, this was a personally difficult time for Mozart, who had just lost his mother while the two were traveling, in Paris. As is so often true of Mozart, however, not a trace of his personal troubles is present in his music. While it may be said that Beethoven's music exalts mankind to the heavens, Mozart's music seems to have been made in heaven to begin with.

There are so many versions of Laudate dominum on the Web that it was impossible to choose the single best, though for beauty of articulation, the version with Genia Kühmeier above is difficult to improve upon. Nevertheless, I would like to commend to you at least three other versions, each with its own stellar qualities. This version by Cecilia Bartoli expresses a reverence for the text that remains fresh and innocent, never cloying:

There are two much older versions also available, each coming from a similar school of bel canto: here are links to a classic version by Lucia Popp, and to a rarely-heard recording of a 1987 performance at M.I.T. by a 21-year-old Cheryl Studer. (Note to self: don't bother trying to listen to any version which is performed in under four minutes; and the real test of a singer's abilities becomes apparent the more she risks taking five full minutes in which to exploit all of the music's glorious phrases.)

It is a fitting note on which to end the year: Praise the Lord, all ye nations!


  1. Not a deep thought - but just for fun it is worth noting that the word translated "nations" in the first line is goyim, the plural form of the oft vocalized "goy" (Gentile, non-Jew).

    Happy New Year!

  2. This Mozart piece is not joyful or triumphant praise, but rather the poignant heartwrenching kind of praise that Mozart might have offered at the time he wrote Laudate Dominum. Nothing was going right for him. He had suffered several losses and humiliations.

    It was a sacrifice of praise, one of the three intangible sacrifices mentioned in Scripture: praise, thanksgiving (gratitude) and joy. The latter is hard to achieve when one is hurting unless we do the first two exercises first and work up to taking joy in God and receiving His joy. In offering all three of these sacrifices, we must be focused on God and on our love for God and His for us, not our circumstances. We can make these sacrifices even when there is no consolation left in our lives - when all we have is God Himself.

    I became acquainted with Laudate Dominum through Christopher Parkening's guitar arrangement during a time when my own life mirrored Mozart's. It was one of only two pieces of music I could bear to hear. The other was Virgil Fox's powerful rendering of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D, with the volume turned up all the way until it felt like the thunder on Mt. Sinai or Judgment Day!

    A couple of years later, I presented the guitar version as a tone poem to a Poetry Therapy class and for fun, had the participants try to guess the composer, describe the mood, message or story behind the music. No one guessed the composer, but everyone guessed the pain and loss the composer was going through at the time. Of course, the class was full of kind and sympathetic listeners - each one was a future mental health professional from several disciplines at the university.

    Here is a link to Christopher Parkening's Laudate Dominum:

    And, here's Virgil Fox thundering out Bach's Fugue: