Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Ash Wednesday: Miserere Mei Deus

A lovely version of Allegri's very famous Miserere Mei Deus below, sung by "The Sixteen."  (Great name!)    It's thought that the piece was written sometime during the 1630s.



Here's Psalm 51 in its entirety, in Latin first (from CPDL) and then in English, from the Coverdale (1662) Psalter:
Miserére mei, Deus: secúndum magnam misericórdiam tuam.
Et secúndum multitúdinem miseratiónum tuárum: dele iniquitátem meam.
Ámplius lava me ab iniquitáte mea: et a peccáto meo munda me.
Quóniam iniquitátem meam ego cognósco: et peccátum meum contra me est semper.
Tibi soli peccávi, et malum coram te feci: ut justificéris in sermónibus tuis, et vincas cum judicáris.
Ecce enim in iniquitátibus concéptus sum: et in peccátis concépit me mater mea.
Ecce enim veritátem dilexísti: incérta et occúlta sapiéntiæ tuæ manifestásti mihi.
Aspérges me hyssópo, et mundábor: lavábis me, et super nivem dealbábor.
Audítui meo dabis gáudium et lætítiam: et exsultábunt ossa humiliáta.
Avérte fáciem tuam a peccátis meis: et omnes iniquitátes meas dele.
Cor mundum crea in me, Deus: et spíritum rectum ínnova in viscéribus meis.
Ne projícias me a fácie tua: et spíritum sanctum tuum ne áuferas a me.
Redde mihi lætítiam salutáris tui: et spíritu principáli confírma me.
Docébo iníquos vias tuas: et ímpii ad te converténtur.
Líbera me de sangúinibus, Deus, Deus salútis meæ: et exsultábit lingua mea justítiam tuam.
Dómine, lábia mea apéries: et os meum annuntiábit laudem tuam.
Quóniam si voluísses sacrifícium, dedíssem utique: holocáustis non delectáberis.
Sacrifícium Deo spíritus contribulátus: cor contrítum et humiliátum, Deus, non despícies.
Benígne fac, Dómine, in bona voluntáte tua Sion: ut ædificéntur muri Jerúsalem.
Tunc acceptábis sacrifícium justítiæ, oblatiónes et holocáusta: tunc impónent super altáre tuum vítulos.


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.

What's interesting to me about this piece is that it uses the Tonus Peregrinus for the plainchant melody!  I'm not aware of another sung alternatim with the plainchant/polyphony structure that uses the TP.  Something else to keep in mind is that Allegri wrote this piece for use during Holy Week - and specifically, I believe, for services of Tenebrae on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of that week.  (Tenebrae ends with Psalm 51 and its plea for forgiveness after the reading of the Lamentations.)

Here's part of Wikipedia's entry about the piece:
The Miserere is written for two choirs, one of five and one of four voices, and is an example of Renaissance polyphony surviving to the present day. One of the choirs sings a simple version of the original Miserere chant; the other, spatially separated, sings an ornamented "commentary" on this.

The Tenebrae service where the Miserere would be sung normally began at around 3am. During the ritual, candles would be extinguished one by one, save for the last candle which remained alight and was then hidden. Allegri composed his setting of the Miserere for the final act within the first lesson of the Tenebrae service.

It was the last of twelve falsobordone Miserere settings composed and chanted at the service since 1514 and is the most popular: at some point, it became forbidden to transcribe the music and it was allowed to be performed only at those particular services, thus adding to the mystery surrounding it. Writing it down or performing it elsewhere was punishable by excommunication.[1] The setting that escaped from the Vatican is actually a conflation of verses set by Gregorio Allegri around 1638 and Tommaso Bai (also spelled "Baj"; 1650–1718) in 1714.

Three authorized copies of the work were distributed prior to 1770 – to the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I, to the King of Portugal, and to Padre (Giovanni Battista) Martini.[1] However, none of them succeeded in capturing the beauty of the Miserere as performed annually in the Sistine Chapel.[citation needed] According to the popular story (backed up by family letters), the fourteen-year-old 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. Some time during his travels, he met the British historian Dr Charles Burney, who obtained the piece from him and took it to London, where it was published in 1771. Once the piece was published, the ban was lifted; Mozart was summoned to Rome by the Pope, only instead of excommunicating the boy, the Pope showered praises on him for his feat of musical genius. 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.[citation needed]

The original ornamentation 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. However, the Roman priest Pietro Alfieri published an edition in 1840 with the intent of preserving the performance practice of the Sistine choir in the Allegri and Bai compositions, including ornamentation.


There's also a long article about this piece at "Ancient Groove Music," a site I've just discovered. 

The traditional Gradual for Ash Wednesday is also Miserere Mei Deus - this one from Psalm 57:1-4 below. Here's the mp3 from the Brazilian Benedictines, and the chant score:



1 Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me, for my soul trusteth in thee *
and under the shadow of thy wings shall be my refuge, until this tyranny be over-past.
2 I will call unto the most high God *
even unto the God that shall perform the cause which I have in hand.
3 He shall send from heaven *
and save me from the reproof of him that would eat me up.
4 God shall send forth his mercy and truth *
my soul is among lions.
5 And I lie even among the children of men, that are set on fire *
whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword.
6 Set up thyself, O God, above the heavens *
and thy glory above all the earth.
7 They have laid a net for my feet, and pressed down my soul *
they have digged a pit before me, and are fallen into the midst of it themselves.
8 My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed *
I will sing, and give praise.
9 Awake up, my glory; awake, lute and harp *
I myself will awake right early.
10 I will give thanks unto thee, O Lord, among the people *
and I will sing unto thee among the nations.
11 For the greatness of thy mercy reacheth unto the heavens *
and thy truth unto the clouds.
12 Set up thyself, O God, above the heavens *
and thy glory above all the earth.

Here are posts on this site about other propers on the day:
The Ash Wednesday Introit: Misereris omnium
Ash Wednesday: Miserere Mei Deus (The Gradual)
Ash Wednesday:  Domine, non secundum (The Tract)
Ash Wednesday: Immutemur habitu and Emendemus in melius (antiphons sung during the imposition of ashes)
Exaltabo Te, Domine (The Offertory)
The Ash Wednesday Communion Song: Qui meditabitur

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