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Miserere (full title: Miserere mei, Deus, Latin for "Have mercy on me, O God") is a setting of Psalm 51 (50) by Italian composer Gregorio Allegri. It was composed during the reign of Pope Urban VIII, probably during the 1630s, for use in the Sistine Chapel during matins, as part of the exclusive Tenebrae service on Holy Wednesday and Good Friday of Holy Week.
Description and use
The Miserere is written for two choirs, one of five and one of four voices, and is an example of Renaissance polyphony. One of the choirs sings a simple version of the original Miserere chant; the other, spatially separated, sings an ornamented commentary on this.
The Tenebrae service where the Miserere would be sung normally began at dusk, hence the name (tenebrae is Latin for "shadows" or "darkness"). During the ritual, candles would be extinguished one by one, save for the last candle which remained alight and was then hidden. Allegri envisioned the setting of the Miserere to be the final act within the first lesson of the Tenebrae service.
It was the last of twelve falsobordone Miserere settings composed and chanted at the service since 1514 and is the most popular.
At some point, it became forbidden to transcribe the music and it was allowed to be performed only at those particular services at the Sistine Chapel, thus adding to the mystery surrounding it.
Three authorized copies of the work were distributed prior to 1770: to the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I; to the King of Portugal; and to Padre (Giovanni Battista) Martini. However, none of them succeeded in capturing the beauty of the Miserere as performed annually in the Sistine Chapel. According to the popular story (backed up by family letters), fourteen-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was visiting Rome when he first heard the piece during the Wednesday service. Later that day, he wrote it down entirely from memory, returning to the Chapel that Friday to make minor corrections. Less than three months after hearing the song and transcribing it, Mozart had gained fame for the work and was summoned to Rome by Pope Clement XIV, who showered praise on him for his feat of musical genius and awarded him the Chivalric Order of the Golden Spur on July 4, 1770. Some time during his travels, he met the British historian Charles Burney, who obtained the piece from him and took it to London, where it was published in 1771. The work was also transcribed by Felix Mendelssohn in 1831 and Franz Liszt, and various other 18th and 19th century sources survive. Since the lifting of the ban, Allegri's Miserere has become one of the most popular a cappella choral works now performed.
The original ornamentation that made the work famous were Renaissance techniques that preceded the composition itself, and it was these techniques that were closely guarded by the Vatican. Few written sources (not even Burney's) showed the ornamentation, and it was this that created the legend of the work's mystery. However, the Roman priest Pietro Alfieri published an edition in 1840 with the intent of preserving the performance practice of the Sistine choir in the Allegri and Bai compositions, including ornamentation.
The Miserere is one of the most frequently recorded pieces of late Renaissance music. An early and celebrated recording of it is the one from March 1963 by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, conducted by Sir David Willcocks, which was sung in English and featured the then-treble Roy Goodman. This recording was originally part of a gramophone LP recording entitled Evensong for Ash Wednesday but the Miserere has subsequently been re-released on various compilation discs.
In 2015 the Sistine Chapel choir released their first CD, including the 1661 Sistine codex version of the Miserere recorded in the chapel itself.
The original translation of the psalm used for the piece was in Latin:
Miserere mei, Deus
Miserere mei, Deus: secundum magnam misericordiam tuam.
Et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum, dele iniquitatem meam.
Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea: et a peccato meo munda me.
Quoniam iniquitatem meam ego cognosco: et peccatum meum contra me est semper.
Tibi soli peccavi, et malum coram te feci: ut justificeris in sermonibus tuis, et vincas cum judicaris.
Ecce enim in iniquitatibus conceptus sum: et in peccatis concepit me mater mea.
Ecce enim veritatem dilexisti: incerta et occulta sapientiae tuae manifestasti mihi.
Asperges me hysopo, et mundabor: lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.
Auditui meo dabis gaudium et laetitiam: et exsultabunt ossa humiliata.
Averte faciem tuam a peccatis meis: et omnes iniquitates meas dele.
Cor mundum crea in me, Deus: et spiritum rectum innova in visceribus meis.
Ne proiicias me a facie tua: et spiritum sanctum tuum ne auferas a me.
Redde mihi laetitiam salutaris tui: et spiritu principali confirma me.
Docebo iniquos vias tuas: et impii ad te convertentur.
Libera me de sanguinibus, Deus, Deus salutis meae: et exsultabit lingua mea justitiam tuam.
Domine, labia mea aperies: et os meum annuntiabit laudem tuam.
Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium, dedissem utique: holocaustis non delectaberis.
Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus: cor contritum, et humiliatum, Deus, non despicies.
Benigne fac, Domine, in bona voluntate tua Sion: ut aedificentur muri Ierusalem.
Tunc acceptabis sacrificium justitiae, oblationes, et holocausta: tunc imponent super altare tuum vitulos.
Have mercy upon me, O God
Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness
According to the multitude of Thy mercies do away mine offences.
Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness: and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my faults: and my sin is ever before me.
Against Thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that Thou mightest be justified in Thy saying, and clear when Thou art judged.
Behold, I was shapen in wickedness: and in sin hath my mother conceived me.
But lo, Thou requirest truth in the inward parts: and shalt make me to understand wisdom secretly.
Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness: that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice.
Turn Thy face from my sins: and put out all my misdeeds.
Make me a clean heart, O God: and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from Thy presence: and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.
O give me the comfort of Thy help again: and stablish me with Thy free Spirit.
Then shall I teach Thy ways unto the wicked: and sinners shall be converted unto Thee.
Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, Thou that art the God of my health: and my tongue shall sing of Thy righteousness.
Thou shalt open my lips, O Lord: and my mouth shall shew (= show) Thy praise.
For Thou desirest no sacrifice, else would I give it Thee: but Thou delightest not in burnt-offerings.
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt Thou not despise.
O be favourable and gracious unto Sion: build Thou the walls of Jerusalem.
Then shalt Thou be pleased with the sacrifice of righteousness, with the burnt-offerings and oblations: then shall they offer young bullocks upon Thine altar. 
Notes and references
- Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th ed., 1954, Eric Blom, ed.
- Vatican reveals Wolfgang Mozart's papal honour (2011-08-16)
- Gramophone Classical Good CD Guide
- BBC Radio 3's Breakfast programme (17 October 2011)
- "Sistine Chapel Choir to release first ever album in time for Christmas". Catholic Herald. September 10, 2015. Retrieved October 18, 2015.
- Book of Common Prayer 1662
- A detailed discussion of the piece's authentic sources and manuscript history, and an authentic performing edition. Ben Byram-Wigfield (2014), Ancient groove music.
- Documents describing Mozart's transcription of the Allegri Miserere. Wikisource. Archived on 18 February 2006.
- Miserere: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP)
- Free scores of Allegri's Miserere in the Choral Public Domain Library (ChoralWiki)
- Psalm 50 (51) (Latin Vulgate)
- Psalm 50 (51) (Douay-Rheims translation from the Vulgate)
- Psalm 51 (50) New American Bible from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops