Have mercy on me, O God,
according to thy steadfast love;
according to thy abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions. (Psalm 51:1)
And what transgressions they were! King David had used trickery and deceit to send Uriah the Hittite to his death. He had, in fact, murdered his loyal soldier in order to hide his own adultery. Tradition tells us that David composed Psalm 51 as an expression of sorrow and repentance for the wicked deed. We often refer to the psalm as the Miserere (“Have mercy”) because that’s its first word in the Latin Vulgate Bible.
It seems natural to associate King David’s great psalm of repentance with the penitential Season of Lent. As it happens, many composers have written musical settings for the Miserere. The most famous musical treatment of the psalm was composed by Gregorio Allegri in the 1630s. I have posted various performances of Allegri’s Miserere over the last few years (most recently here). Last year I also posted the lesser-known (but still powerfully beautiful and moving) setting by Pergolesi . I’m continuing that tradition this Lent by sharing yet another setting for the Miserere, this one by Antonio Lotti.
Lotti the Man
Lotti may not be well-known today (at least to those of us who, like me, are not music history experts), but he was (it seems) an important and influential composer and teacher in his day. He lived from 1667-1740. He spent his entire musical career (except for a brief period in Dresden from 1717-1719) at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice as a singer, organist and, eventually, maestro di cappella.
Reliable information about Lotti the man is somewhat spotty. Biographical accounts over the years have contained some documented factual information, with a healthy admixture of less reliable “oral tradition.” For example, biographers have claimed that Lotti influenced the music of J.S. Bach and G.F. Handel. All we know for sure, however, is that Bach and Handel both had copies of Lotti’s Missa Sapientiae. While it’s a reasonable guess that they admired his work, there’s no direct evidence of influence.
There’s also an 1854 biography by Francesco Caffi, which tells us that aspiring musicians sought out Lotti as a teacher. He lists Domenico Alberti, Benedetto Marcello, Giovanni Battista Pescetti, Baldassare Galuppi, Giuseppe Saratelli and Jan Dismas Zelenka as students. And maybe they were. Zelenka, at least, also owned a copy of Lotti’s Missa Sapientiae.
There’s one thing we know for sure about Antonio Lotti. He composed beautiful and moving music. His Miserere, for instance, in which the combined voices of the chorus powerfully express the sorrow and penitence of King David. In the clip below László Matos conducts Prelude Choir Budapest in a performance of the first section of Lotti’s Miserere.