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Musical Musings: Lent

Miserere mei Deus

by Gary D. Penkala

Gregorio Allegri Psalm 51 (numbered as Psalm 50 in the Latin Vulgate) is a quintessential text for Lent and Holy Week. It is one of the Common Responsorial Psalms for Lent and is prayed every Friday during Morning Prayer [Lauds] in the Liturgy of the Hours [Divine Office]. The text has been set by many composers, including Orlando di Lasso, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, William Byrd, Phillippe de Monte, Tomas Luis de Victoria, W.A. Mozart, Antonio Lotti, Josquin des Prez, Michael Praetorius, and Calvert Shenk

Perhaps the most famous setting is the one by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652), sung beautifully by the Tallis Scholars: Part 1 and Part 2.

Allegri studied under Giovanni Maria Nanini and worked for a time at the Cathedral in Fermi, Italy. He was a friend of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, and wrote in a similar style. His compositions caught the attention of Pope Urban VII, who appointed him to the Sistine Chapel Choir in 1629.

It was for the Sistine Chapel, the private chapel of the pope, that Allegri wrote his famous Miserere. The piece was sung on Wednesday of Holy Week [Spy Wednesday] for a Tenebrae Service and also on Good Friday; all only within the confines of the chapel. It became a standard part of the repertoire of the Cappella Sistina, the Sistine Chapel Choir, and was sung for years after the death of the composer. Adding to the aura of mystery and secrecy was the Vatican's prohibition against copies of the work, threatening any publication or attempted copying with excommunication.

The young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in 1770, entered this story of intrigue. On a trip to Rome, the 14-year old, with his father, Leopold, heard the choir sing this magnificent music on Wednesday of Holy Week. The story has Mozart afterwards, transcribing the entire work by memory. He returned to the Chapel on Good Friday and made minor corrections, creating the first "bootleg" copy.

Leopold Mozart, in a letter to his wife of 14th April, says:

You have often heard of the famous Miserere in Rome, which is so greatly prized that the performers are forbidden on pain of excommunication to take away a single part of it, copy it or give it to anyone. But we have it already. Wolfgang has written it down and we would have sent it to Salzburg in this letter, if it were not necessary for us to be there to perform it. But the manner of performance contributes more to its effect than the composition itself. Moreover, as it is one of the secrets of Rome, we do not wish to let it fall into other hands.

In the summer of that year, Mozart composed his own Miserere, K.85, which was influenced by what he had heard in Rome.

The Allegri setting, written during the Baroque period but in an older style, is scored for two choirs, one SSATB, the other SATB (or SSAB). The second choir parts are very often sung by soloists. A chant schola (often the men from Choir 1, or a male soloist from Choir 2) chants verses using the Tonus peregrinus. This pattern is repeated five times, until all verses of the psalm have been sung:

  • Full choir [SSATB] sings two phrases
  • Unison male schola [or soloist] sings two phrases
  • Solo quartet [SATB] sings two phrases
  • Unison male schola [or soloist] sings two phrases

The 20th verse is sung by the Full Choir and the Solo Quartet together, a nine-part texture.

The Latin text runs thus:

  1. Miserere mei, Deus: secundum magnam misericordiam tuam.
  2. Et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum, dele iniquitatem meam.
  3. Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea: et a peccato meo munda me.
  4. Quoniam iniquitatem meam ego cognosco: et peccatum meum contra me est semper.
  5. Tibi soli peccavi, et malum coram te feci: ut iustificeris in sermonibus tuis, et vincas cum iudicaris.
  6. Ecce enim in inquitatibus conceptus sum: et in peccatis concepit me mater mea.
  7. Ecce enim veritatem dilexisti: incerta et occulta sapientiae tuae manifestasti mihi.
  8. Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo, et mundabor: lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.
  9. Auditui meo dabis gaudium et laetitiam: et exsultabunt ossa humiliata.
  10. Averte faciem tuam a peccatis meis: et omnes iniquitates meas dele.
  11. Cor mundum crea in me, Deus: et spiritum rectum innova in visceribus meis.
  12. Ne proiicias me a facie tua: et spiritum sanctum tuum ne auferas a me.
  13. Redde mihi laetitiam salutaris tui: et spiritu principali confirma me.
  14. Docebo iniquos vias tuas: et impii ad te convertentur.
  15. Libera me de sanguinibus, Deus, Deus salutis meae: et exsultabit lingua mea iustitiam tuam.
  16. Domine, labia mea aperies: et os meum annuntiabit laudem tuam.
  17. Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium, dedissem utique: holocaustis non delectaberis.
  18. Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus: cor contritum, et humiliatum, Deus, non despicies.
  19. Benigne fac, Domine, in bona voluntate tua Sion: ut aedificentur muri Ierusalem.
  20. Tunc acceptabis sacrificium iustitiae, oblationes, et holocausta: tunc imponent super altare tuum vitulos.

Phrases sung by the Full Choir are in bold face. Phrases sung by the Solo Quartet are in italics. Other phrases are sung by the male chant group.

An English translation:

  1. Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness:
  2. According to the multitude of Thy mercies do away mine offences.
  3. Wash me throughly from my wickedness: and cleanse me from my sin.
  4. For I acknowledge my faults: and my sin is ever before me.
  5. 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.
  6. Behold, I was shapen in wickedness: and in sin hath my mother conceived me.
  7. But lo, Thou requirest truth in the inward parts: and shalt make me to understand wisdom secretly.
  8. Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
  9. Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness: that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice.
  10. Turn Thy face from my sins: and put out all my misdeeds.
  11. Make me a clean heart, O God: and renew a right spirit within me.
  12. Cast me not away from Thy presence: and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.
  13. O give me the comfort of Thy help again: and stablish me with Thy free Spirit.
  14. Then shall I teach Thy ways unto the wicked: and sinners shall be converted unto Thee.
  15. Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, Thou that art the God of my health: and my tongue shall sing of Thy righteousness.
  16. Thou shalt open my lips, O Lord: and my mouth shall shew Thy praise.
  17. For Thou desirest no sacrifice, else would I give it Thee: but Thou delightest not in burnt-offerings.
  18. The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt Thou not despise.
  19. O be favorable and gracious unto Sion: build Thou the walls of Jerusalem.
  20. 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.

Allegri died on February 17, 1652, at age 70. He is buried in Rome's Chiesa Nuova, the traditional burial place of the Papal Choristers.

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