During his career Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942) wrote only three major works that can be called "sacred music," and they are all Psalm settings. This one was written more or less at the outset of the successful part of his musical career. The 23rd Psalm was written ten years later, when he was at a high point of success, and the 13th Psalm was written in 1935, when his career was in ruins and his life in danger as a Jew living in Nazi Germany.
None of them can be called "church music." They are an unusual meeting of the Romantic Era for of the symphonic poem and Austrian choral church music.
When Zemlinsky wrote this piece he was just achieving success as a conductor of the Carltheater in Vienna, but his music (at that time as radical as Arnold Schoenberg's, although Zemlinsky did not later follow Schoenberg into atonality) met predominantly with hostility. To this has been attributed this choice of one of the least-known Psalms, one which bids the Lord smite the enemies of His chosen people with a detailed variety of punishments and afflictions. Perhaps it is also in some was a reaction to the death of the composer's father, in June 1900. This Psalm was the first work he composed after that loss.
The choral parts tend to be written in the traditional polyphonic style, while the orchestral accompaniment is in a post-Wagnerian, programmatic style, illustrating aspects of the text with tone-painting. The opening part of the psalm is lamenting, in which a string fugato opens the work and states an important motive. The choral part is also canonic in texture. A soprano solo of operatic qualities emerges as the supplication voice of an individual. The tempo picks up as the music turns martial and seems to celebrate a wish for destruction to the peope's enemies. At the end there is a mighty choral-orchestral fugue in the tradition of great oratorios.