Gregorio Allegri’s setting for psalm 51 is among the most famous of Lenten musical compositions. We call it the Miserere (i.e., “Have mercy”) from it’s first word in Latin. Allegri composed the piece some time in the 1630s. Its association with Lent isn’t accidental. In fact, Allegri composed it specifically for Tenebrae services in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.
And in the Sistine Chapel it stayed, for almost a century and a half. The Popes allowed almost no transcriptions of Allegri’s mezmerizing composition. In fact, they permitted only three authorized versions to leave the papal precincts of the Vatican. The Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I received a copy. Next, King John V of Portugal also owned an authorized version. Finally, the musically gifted Franciscan Giovanni Battista Martini was one of the lucky recipients of a genuine copy of Allegri’s Miserere.
Playing By Ear
That all changed when a 14 year old visitor to Rome named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart heard the Miserere sung in the Sistine Chapel. The young Mozart listened closely. Then, he went back to his room, where he wrote down the music from memory. Next, he went back two days later to check his work. After listening a second time, he found that he needed to make only a few minor corrections. Pope Clement XIV was so impressed with young composer’s achievement that, on July 4th 1770, he honored Mozart with the Order of the Golden Spur.
The group Tenebrae performs the moving rendition Allegri’s Miserere in the clip below. I’ve posted more information about Psalm 51 itself below the clip.
The Penitence of King David
Tradition tells us that King David wrote Psalm 51. It’s his prayer of repentance for his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah (2 Samuel, chapters 11-12).
Psalm 51 is the first psalm in Morning Prayer (Lauds) every Friday (the day of penance) in the Liturgy of the Hours. Portions of it are also used in other parts of the liturgy during Lent. Verse 7 (Asperges me hyssopo, et mundabor; lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor, “You will sprinkle me with hyssop and I will be made clean; you will wash me and I will become whiter than snow) is said during the Asperges rite, when the priest sprinkles the congregation with holy water. Traditionally hyssop was used for sprinkling the blood of sacrificial animals.
Below I’ve posted the Latin translation of Psalm 51 used in Allegri’s Miserere, as well as the English translation from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
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 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.
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love;
according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against thee, thee only, have I sinned,
and done that which is evil in thy sight,
so that thou art justified in thy sentence
and blameless in thy judgment.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
6 Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Fill me with joy and gladness;
let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice.
9 Hide thy face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from thy presence,
and take not thy holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of thy salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors thy ways,
and sinners will return to thee.
14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
thou God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of thy deliverance.
15 O Lord, open thou my lips,
and my mouth shall show forth thy praise.
16 For thou hast no delight in sacrifice;
were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased.
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
18 Do good to Zion in thy good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
19 then wilt thou delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on thy altar.