Good Music: Allegri’s Miserere Mei

Today is Good Friday [link to my Easter site], a very important day for Christians (like me). It’s the day when Christians remember Jesus, who Christians believe is the Son of God, died to forgive from our sins. It might seem strange that it’s called ‘Good’ Friday, but the ‘Good’ in Good Friday comes from old English when Good meant Holy. So you could call Good Friday, ‘Holy Friday’.

Traditionally, Good Friday has been a solemn day and Church music has also reflected this. From the middle ages, special ‘Tenebrae’ services have been held during the evenings on the Wednesday & Thursday before Good Friday, as well as on Good Friday. One of the most famous pieces of music to come from the Tenebrae services in the Vatican is Allegri’s ‘Miserere Mei’ written in the 1630s especially for use in the Sistine Chapel.

Oner famous story (which seems to be true) is that as a child, Mozart was visiting Rome with his family and they went to the Wednesday Tenebrae service where he heard the Miserere Mei. The next day he wrote down the music from memory and went back to the Good Friday service to make a few corrections. From there versions of the music were published and it became performed all throughout Europe.

The words of the piece are from Psalm 51, which asks God for mercy. It’s normally sung in Latin, but I’ve put an English translation below the video!

It’s a stunning and beautiful piece of music and one of my choral favourites. Here it is performed by the choir of King’s College Cambridge.

Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness
According to the multitude of Thy mercies 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 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 [show] 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.

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