Gregorio Allegri (c. 1582-1652) was a Roman Catholic priest and Italian composer of the Roman School, whose most famous work is Miserere or its full title, Miserere mei, Deus (Latin for “Have mercy on me, O God”). Allegri’s masterpiece was written sometime before 1638 during the reign of Pope Urban VIII for the exclusive use of the Sistine Chapel during the Tenebrae services of the Holy Week (Easter celebrations).
Twice during that week, on Wednesday and Friday, the service would start at 3 am when 27 candles were extinguished one at a time until but one remained burning. According to reports, the pope would participate in these services. Allegri composed his setting of the Miserere, based on Psalm 51, for the very end of the first lesson of these Tenebrae services. At the final candle, the pope would kneel before the altar and pray while the Miserere was sung, culminating the service.
A papal prohibition was placed on its use outside the Sistine Chapel at the appointed time. Chapel regulations also forbade its transcription though three copies were known to exist by the late 18th century. One was owned by the King of Portugal; another was in the possession of the distinguished composer, pedagogue, and theoretician Padre Giovanni Battista Martini (1706-1784); and a third was kept in the Imperial Library in Vienna. With its soaring soprano parts (sung for centuries by castrati) and compelling melodic style, it is not hard to see why Allegri’s masterpiece enjoyed the popularity it did.
Here is a sublime performance of Miserere by The Choir of New College in Oxford.
Miserere: Its Lyrics in English
Have mercy upon me, O God,
after thy great goodness:
according to the multitude of
do away mine offences.
Wash me thoroughly 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 mightiest be justified
in thy saying, and clear when thou art judged.
Behold, I was sharpen 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
Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be
clean: thou shalt wash me,
and I shall be whiter
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.