In the late 1550s Orlando di Lasso created perhaps the most magnificent cycle of penitential psalms in music history while he was still a tenor in the Munich court chapel (he would soon become its chapel-master). Composed as musica riservata, it was first intended exclusively for his prince, who had the Penitential Psalms written out in a magnificent illustrated codex with miniatures by Hans Mielich, only to lock it away. Not until the printed edition of 1584 did the Penitential Psalms reach the world at large and magnify the fame of their creator.
Alfred Schnittke, a Russian poly-stylistic composer of German ancestry, wrote his a cappella cycle in 1988 for the millennial celebrations of Russia’s conversion to Christianity. It is based on verses by a 16th-century Russian cleric who railed against the misrule of his era. His plea seems more relevant than ever today, and it receives additional force from Schnittke’s musical garb, with its myriad expressive possibilities.