Not only does Allegri’s Miserere have one of the most unique stories in all music, it is one of the most beautiful and haunting pieces ever composed and is deserving of its four centuries of popularity.
The Italian composer Gregorio Allegri composed his Miserere in most likely the 1630’s during the reign of Pope Urban VIII. I say ‘his’ because the text of the Miserere mei Deus (its full title) has been set by many composers from long before Allegri to the present day. The Miserere of Arvo Pärt
and James MacMillan
are two powerful and important 20th century settings of this text. In fact, Allegri’s is the last of twelve settings that were composed solely to be sung in the Sistine Chapel. It became forbidden to even transcribe these misereres onto paper, making the annual Holy Week performances by the Sistine Chapel Choir incredibly mysterious and wholly unique.
Nearly a century and half later, the fourteen-year-old Mozart famously visited Rome in 1770 and heard the Good Wednesday performance of Allegri’s Miserere. Later that same day he transcribed it in its entirety from memory, and went back to the Friday performance to check his work to make a couple of adjustments. Upon returning to Salzburg, he gained immediate fame and popularity for his accomplishment, so much so that Pope Clement XIV summoned him back to Rome and awarded him the Order of the Golden Spur on July 4, 1770.
Mozart’s transcription was published in London in 1771 and there were subsequently many transcriptions of this amazing composition, by composers including Mendelssohn and Liszt. Why so many transcriptions, and why would they differ so widely? If you look at the original composition by Allegri,
you don’t need to read music to notice that it looks like everyone is basically doing the same thing, more or less. However, music in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe was very improvisatory, and what would be the singing style in the 1630’s, would not be in style in the 1650’s, etc. It’s sort of like the fashion industry today. Here’s how the original version sounds, without any improvisation, or ornamentation, of the original notes, sung in the Sistene Chapel.
It is highly unlikely that it was ever sung so unadorned, even during Allegri’s lifetime, and it’s more likely that it sounded like this version, one of my favorite recordings, by the incredible choir, A Sei Voci.
Here is a remarkable live performance of the version most of us know, which is basically Mendelssohn’s version with the famous high ‘c’ for one of the sopranos, and it’s sung by my friends, the extraordinary group, Ars Nova Copenhagen.
And another exquisitely filmed version by the English group, Tenebrae.
The text, Have Mercy On Me, God (English), is from Psalm 50 (51) and here is the original Latin with an English translation below.
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 hyssopo, 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 projicias 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 Jerusalem.
Tunc acceptabis sacrificium justitiae, oblationes et holocausta; tunc imponent super altare tuum vitulos. Have mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness: according to the multitude of thy mercies do away mine offences.
Wash me throughly 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 bullocks upon thine altar.