AllegeriOne of the comments on an earlier post reminded me of a famous story about the Miserere composed by Italian composer Gregorio Allegeri (1582-1652).  It was composed about 1630, and is his most well known piece of music.  A Miserere is a musical setting of Psalm 51 using the Latin text.  The setting composed by Allegeri was adopted by the Catholic church in Rome for exclusive use during Tenebrae services of Holy Week in the Sistine Chapel.  Allegeri wrote his music for two choirs, one in four parts and the other in five parts.  The choirs were separated in different parts of the Sistine Chapel, and the gorgeous vocal lines echoed throughout the beautiful interior space.  The full Latin text is below.

Miserere mei, Deus

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.
Audi tui 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.


The text in English translation reads like this:


Have mercy upon me, O God

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.


Gregorio Allegeri, Miserere

Sistine Chapel
Sistine Chapel

In modern times, the Miserere by Allegeri is one of the most frequently recorded examples of Renaissance era music.  There was a time when is was only heard at the Sistine Chapel, and only during those Holy Week services.  In fact, the choir members were forbidden to remove parts or copy the music down.  The church in Rome wanted to preserve the mystery and experience of the music, and for close to 140 years it was only performed in the approved setting.  Punishment for copying down the music, or performing it elsewhere,  was excommunication from the church, a very serious ordeal at the time.  Then one day, a young Wolfgang Mozart came through Rome on a tour of Italy.

Wolfgang Mozart, age 14
Wolfgang Mozart, age 14

Wolfgang Mozart was a child prodigy like no other.  It didn’t hurt that his father, Leopold Mozart, was an established composer and musician in his own right, and fostered Wolfgang’s music education from early on.  At a young age, Leopold took Wolfgang and his talented sister Nanneri on a European tour to perform and show off for audiences.  They would play music, sight read, and perform all sorts of musical feats to captivate European society audiences.  In December of 1769, Leopold took Wolfgang on a 15 month tour of Italy to perform and absorb all sorts of music in the great cities of Italy.  (Nanneri had grown into adulthood by that time, but Wolfgang was 13 going on 14 years of age.)

During Holy Week in 1770, Wolfgang attended services at the Sistine Chapel.  During the Wednesday service, he heard the beautiful and protected Miserere.  The 14 year old Mozart was a sponge.  He could memorize music in one hearing.  Later that day, he went to his lodgings and wrote down the entire Allegeri composition from memory. What a freak of Nature!  Something close to 12 minutes of music, in nine part Renaissance polyphony, in only one hearing!  The commercially printed score is 10 pages of music, and Wolfgang just wrote it all down in his leisure after listening once.   He returned to the Good Friday service and checked his work.  This was an amazing feat, and a seriously risky thing for the brash teenage genius to do.  The church was an incredibly powerful entity still in 1770.  Excommunication is a horrible punishment for a person in Mozart’s day.  Not the least consideration is that his father Leopold was in the employ of the Archbishop of Salzburg’s court at the time, and would certainly lose his salary if father and son were excommunicated from the church.

Leopold Mozart was not worried in the least about potential consequences for copying out the Miserere.  In a letter home, he wrote:

“All Rome, and even the Pope himself, know that Wolfgang has written down the Miserere.  There is nothing at all to fear, on the contrary the achievement has brought him great honor. “
Mozart’s copy of the score made its way to London, where it was published in 1771.  After publication, Wolfgang was summoned to Rome to speak with Pope Clement XIV.  Instead of punishing and excommunicating the boy, Pope Clement praised him for his skills in copying down the complex music.  Ultimately the ban on performance outside the Sistine Chapel was lifted.  Interestingly, this feat of musical genius is a good example of how Wolfgang Mozart’s mind worked.  Later in life he referred to the process of creating a musical score as “copying it down”, a tedious little chore he could do while occupying himself with other things.  His manuscripts contain no mistakes, no rewrites, no erasures nor corrections.  Mozart composed musical works of every size in his head, and then when he got around to it, he would write them out.  No sketches, no drafts, no editing; just the chore of writing out the final copy.  Wolfgang wrote brilliant music like it was a bodily function;  it just came out. What sort of things could we have heard if he had lived past the age of 35 years?  The idea makes a person wonder.


7 thoughts on “Miserere

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  1. And thank you for the story. There is a P.S. that deserves attention: when Lorenzo da Ponte
    died in 1838, the Miserere was played at his funeral at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.

  2. Thank you for this… I was just listening to the Miserere earlier this morning and was impressed with the boldness of it’s gentle spaciousness… this storytelling only deepens an appreciation of the work…

  3. A beautiful piece. It really does show God living in the blend of the choir and the top C of the Soprano.

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