Miserere (full title: Miserere mei, Deus, Latin for "Have mercy on me, O God") is a setting of Psalm 51 by Italian composer Gregorio Allegri. It was composed during the reign of Pope Urban VIII, probably during the 1630s, for the exclusive use of the Sistine Chapel during the Tenebrae services of Holy Week, and its mystique was increased by unwritten performance traditions and ornamentation. It is written for two choirs, of five and four voices respectively, singing alternately and joining to sing the ending in 9-part polyphony.
Composed around 1638, Miserere was the last and most famous of twelve falsobordone settings used at the Sistine Chapel since 1514. 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, John V; and to Padre (Giovanni Battista) Martini; however, it was felt that none of the three successfully captured the piece as performed annually in the Sistine Chapel. According to the popular story (backed 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 back 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 ornamentations 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. The Roman priest Pietro Alfieri published an edition in 1840 including ornamentation, with the intent of preserving the performance practice of the Sistine choir in both Allegri's and Tommaso Bai's (1714) settings.
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 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.
Historically informed recordings have been released by the Sixteen, the Tallis Scholars and, more recently, Tenebrae.
In 2015 the Sistine Chapel Choir released their first CD, including the 1661 Sistine codex version of the Miserere recorded in the chapel itself.
Performances typically last between around 12 and 14 minutes.
The original translation of the psalm used for the piece was in Latin:
This translation is from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and is used in Ivor Atkins' English edition of the Miserere (published by Novello):
- Spem in alium
- Leçons de ténèbres
Notes and references
- 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.
- "Allegri - Miserere". Performance by The Gesualdo Six and the choristers of Blackburn Cathedral
- Miserere: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- 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