Here’s a thing: Allegri’s Miserere lasts 13.02 minutes, so I will spend that time writing about it. Miserere, or to give it its full name “Miserere mei, Deus” or Have Mercy on Me O God is a setting of Psalm 51 composed during t during the 1630s, for use in the Sistine Chapel as part of the exclusive Tenebrae service (look it up) on Wednesday and Friday of Holy Week.
Gregorio Allegri composed his setting of the Miserere for the final act within the first lesson of the Tenebrae service.
It was hugely popular: at some point, it became forbidden to transcribe the music and it was allowed to be performed only at those particular services, adding to the mystery surrounding it. Writing it down or performing it elsewhere was punishable by excommunication. Yet it survives and is revered. And I love this. It’s like Punk – the Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bollocks. Censorship backfiring.
Personally, I think it’s a powerful thing that it survived. It is absolutely beautiful. Even Mozart agreed. It’s such a beautiful piece. Very relaxing. I am not religious, this is just a powerful piece of work. Here is a transcript of the lyrics, in English:
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 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 calves upon Thine altar.
Latin versions available on request….