Clearly, the structure is organized on numerical principles, of which the primary one is the name for God ‘Elohim’ which, in the Hebrew alphabet, adds up to 86. The total of 400 represents completion, it being the number assigned to the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
Psalm 51 is a Psalm of David composed as a penance for his adultery with Bathsheba—an adultery which he followed up by putting her husband Uriah in the front line of the army so he would be killed. The heading of the Psalm makes this clear, referring to the prophet Nathan’s demand for David’s penance.
Clerk, in chosing to set this Psalm, must have been well aware of its meaning. When he put at its heart a personal recitative (he alters the original word order to make it even more expressive), we can only conclude that he felt he too had sinned. Had he committed adultery and does this cantata act as a sacred counterpart to Dic mihi saeve puer where he sought to escape the wiles of Cupid? Or was there another symbolism in this—a kind of adultery with the Roman Catholic Church while he was in Rome? Clerk wrote to his father at this time:
You may perhaps think I have a dangerous person beside me when my Cousin is not only a catholic but a Fryer of the order of St Francis, for after the battle of Kilecrankie he came to Italy.
We know Clerk attended Mass in the Sistine chapel where ‘the musick was exceedingly divine, being the compositions of the famous Palestrina’. His life had been saved by nuns who had nursed him when he had smallpox. Had he been too deeply impressed for his own liking by the fact that the Roman Church and its adherents had offered him not only family ties and musical inspiration, but life itself? The answer to these questions may lie in other symbolic aspects of this work, but they await elucidation.
from notes by John Purser © 1998