Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus

Here is Renaissance composer Gregorio Allegri’s masterpiece of vocal harmony and polyphony Miserere mei, Deus. This chant is performed by the British group, the Tenebrae Choir – conducted by Nigel Short. Chants are performed acapella – only the human voice is used, no instruments. Tenebrae gives a breathtaking performance with amazing pitch, clarity of voices, balance, and harmonization! This is Renaissance polyphony at its very best. This work was composed in the 1630s, during the papacy of Pope Urban VIII, at the tail end of the Renaissance. Pay special attention to the high C note the outstanding soprano hits at mark 1:34 through mark 1:38 of the video! Such purity of tone, and crystal clear articulation!

By the way, it’s very fascinating that this high C note which is so famous in this piece actually was the result of a musicological error in what is known as falsobordone. Below, Italian musicologist, Elam Rotem goes into detail explaining precisely how this pleasant ‘error’ arose! Another interesting note about this piece: originally the parts now sung by sopranos would have been sung by boys, or adult castrati (men castrated before puberty so they could still sing very high notes).

The piece was written for use in the Tenebrae service on Holy Wednesday and Good Friday of Holy Week. Pope Urban VIII loved the piece so much, that he forbid it to be performed elsewhere outside of the Sistine Chapel. For over 100 years, Allegri’s ‘Miserere mei, Deus’ was performed exclusively in the church. Anyone caught with a transcription of the piece outside of the chapel could be immediately excommunicated from the church. (In 1770, a 14-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was present at one of the performances while touring Italy with his father. After hearing the piece, Mozart transcribed the work entirely from memory and even made corrections. He attended one more performance to make his final adjustments. The following year, after meeting with music historian and biographer, Dr. Charles Burney, Mozart gave him the sheet music. Burney took the score to London and published it, which resulted in the papacy lifting its ban.)

The lyrics, sung in Latin, are from Psalm 51. One of the 7 penitential psalms. The first three words in the Latin text of this psalm are Miserere mei, Deus (“Have mercy on me, O God”), and musical settings of the psalm — of which there have been many — are often referred to simply as Miserere.

This performance was filmed at St. Bartholomew the Great, London. The church has phenomenal acoustics which are ideally suited for this type of music!

‘Miserere mei, Deus’ Original Latin Lyrics

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.

‘Miserere mei, Deus’ English Translation

Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy.
According unto the multitude of Thy tender mercies remove my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquities, and cleanse me from my sin.
I knowingly confess my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
Against Thee only have I sinned, and done evil before Thee: that they may be justified in Thy sayings, and might they overcome when I am judged.
But behold, I was formed in iniquity: and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, Thou desirest truth in my innermost being: and shalt make me to understand wisdom secretly.
Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, make me whiter than snow.
Open my ears and make me hear of joy and gladness: and my bones that have been humbled shall rejoice.
Turn away Thy face from my sins: and remember not all my misdeeds.
Create in me a clean heart, O God: and make anew a righteous spirit within my body.
Do not cast me away from Thy presence: and take not Thy holy spirit from me.
Restore unto me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.
I will teach those that are unjust Thy ways: and sinners shall be converted unto Thee.
Deliver me from blood, O God, the God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing of Thy righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips: and my mouth shall spring forth Thy praise.
For Thou desirest no sacrifice, where others would: with burnt offerings Thou wilt not be delighted.
Sacrifices of God are broken spirits: dejected and contrite hearts, O God, Thou wilt not despise.
Deal favorably, O Lord, in Thy good pleasure unto Zion: build Thou the walls of Jerusalem.
Then shalt Thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with small and large burnt offerings: then shall they lay calves upon your altar.

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