What are the origins of Allegri’s Miserere, and what do the lyrics mean?

This piece is the stuff of legends. Well, one particular legend, to be precise.

What are the origins of Allegri’s Miserere?

Mozart, when he was a teenager, so the story goes, once heard Allegri’s Miserere being performed in the Sistine Chapel. The precocious young composer apparently scurried home and wrote down the entire work from memory. Wonderful as the story sounds, it’s almost certainly apocryphal: it would have been highly likely that Mozart would have come across the Miserere before, given its already significant popularity in musical circles.

The work itself is a sublime nine-voice setting of Psalm 51: Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misercordiuam tuam (‘Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness’). As you listen to the heavenly sound of each interweaving voice, it’s fascinating to think that Allegri composed the piece for two separate choirs: one of four voices, and the other of five.

Allegri was a devout catholic, having been trained as a priest, and he worked with the Vatican’s Papal Choir right up until his death. Karl Proske, former Canon of Ratisbon Cathedral, described the composer as a man whose music was imbued with his religious faith and personal sense of justice, saying Allegri was ‘a model of priestly peace and humility, a father to the poor, the consoler of captives and the forsaken, a self-sacrificing help and rescuer of suffering humanity’.

 

What are the lyrics for Allegri’s Miserere?

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 iustificeris in sermonibus tuis, et vincas
cum iudicaris.
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.

What are the lyrics in English?

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.

Recommended Recording


Choir of New College, Oxford; Edward Higginbottom (conductor). Erato: 3984 295882.

Illustration: Mark Millington