This candlelit rendition of Allegri’s ‘Miserere’ is a heavenly choral experience

11 September 2020, 11:54

Choir sings exquisite rendition of Allegri's 'Miserere mei, Deus'

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

When music speaks directly to your soul…

This might be the most beautiful choral performance we’ve ever witnessed.

It comes from the incredible chamber choir Tenebrae, who a couple of years ago gathered at the historic St Bartholomew the Great Church in London to record a candle-lit performance of Gregorio Allegri’s ‘Miserere mei, Deus’, which translates as ‘Have mercy on me, God’.

Once heard, this piece is never forgotten. That soaring high C, along with that final moment where all comes together in nine-part polyphony, make it one of the most sublime pieces of choral music ever.

And the music – a setting of Psalm 51 – comes with its own curious history.

The Renaissance Italian composer wrote it for exclusive use at the Sistine Chapel during the Tenebrae services that precede Easter Day. With its exclusivity, came stories of mystique and wonder. ‘Miserere’, which could never leave the Vatican’s holy room, became known for its unwritten performance traditions and added ornamentation.

Read more: Did Mozart really transcribe Allegri’s Miserere aged 14? >

The divine 'Miserere mei, Deus'
The divine 'Miserere mei, Deus'. Picture: Tenebrae

There’s also the fable of how we came to know the music today.

In 1770, the story goes, young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart arrived at the Vatican for Easter. Aged just 14, Mozart was quite taken with Michelangelo’s celebrated chapel, and perhaps unsurprisingly for the teenage prodigy, saw the historic secrecy of the score as a bit of musical challenge. When he returned to his lodgings, Mozart supposedly wrote the forbidden piece out from memory, perfectly and in its entirety.

Whether or not the story is true, we are immensely lucky to still be able to enjoy this piece today.

The Tenebrae choir’s version, which now has over 8m views on YouTube, is conducted by Nigel Short. During the coronavirus pandemic, the choir is asking for donations, so they can continue reaching audiences around the world.

Tenebrae singers
Tenebrae singers. Picture: Tenebrae/YouTube

What are the lyrics and translation of Allegri’s Miserere?

Miserere mei, Deus
Have mercy on me, God

Secundum magnam misericordiam tuam
According to your great kindness

Et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum
And according to the multitude of your mercies,

Dele iniquitatem meam
Erase my iniquities

Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea
Wash me completely from my iniquities

Et a peccato meo munda me
And cleanse me of my sins

Quoniam iniquitatem meam ego cognosco
For I know my iniquities

Et peccatum meum contra me est semper
And my sins are always before me

Tibi soli peccavi
To you alone, I have sinned

Et malum coram te feci
And done evil before you

Ut iustificeris in sermonibus tuis
That you may be fair in your speech

Et vincas cum iudicaris
And justified in your judgement

Ecce enim in iniquitatibus conceptus sum
Behold, I was conceived in iniquity

Et in peccatis concepit me mater mea
And in sin did my mother conceived me

Ecce enim veritatem dilexisti incerta
Behold, you desire truth in the inward parts

Et occulta sapientiae tuae manifestasti mihi
And you teach me wisdom in the hidden places

Asparges me hysopo et mundabor
Purify me with hyssop and I will be clean

Lavabis me et super nivem dealbabor
Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow

Auditui meo dabis Gaudium
Let me hear your joy and gladness

Et laetitiam exultabunt ossa humiliate
And my humble bones will rejoice

Averte faciem tuam a peccatis meis
Turn your face away from my sins

Et omnes iniquitates meas dele
And erase all of my iniquities

Cor mundum crea in me Deus
Create in me a pure heart, oh, God,

Et spiritum rectum innova in visceribus meis
And renew your right spirit within me

Ne proicias me a facie tua
Do not turn me away from your sight,

Et spiritum sanctum tuum ne auferas a me
And do not take your Holy Spirit from me

Redde mihi laetitiam salutaris tui
Return your gladness and salvation to me

Et spiritu principali confirma me
And uphold me with a willing spirit

Docebo iniquos vias tuas
I will teach sinners your way

Et impii ad te convertentur
And they will be converted unto you

Libera me de sanguinibus
Save me from blood,

Deus, Deus salutis meae
God, God of my salvation

Exultabit lingua mea iustitiam tuam
My tongue will praise of your righteousness

Domine labia mea aperies
Lord, open my lips

Et os meum adnuntiabit laudem tuam
And my mouth will sing your glory

Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium dedissem utique
Because you have not desired sacrifices

Holocaustis non delectaberis
For you don't delight in sacrifices, or I would do so

Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus
Nor do you desire burnt offerings

Cor contritum et humiliatum
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit
A broken and humble heart

Deus non spernet
God will not despise

Benigne fac Domine in bona voluntate tua Sion
Do well before the Lord in your good pleasure to Zion

Et aedificentur muri Hierusalem
And build the walls of Jerusalem

Tunc acceptabis sacrificium iustitiae
Then you accept the sacrifices of righteousness

oblationes et holocausta
In oblations and burnt offerings

Tunc inponent super altare tuum vitulos.
Then they will offer bulls on your altar.