The Miserere, (or Miserere mei, Deus), a setting of Psalm 51, written by Gregorio Allegri (c.1582-1652) sometime around the 1630s for the choir of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, where it was performed each Easter as part of the Tenebrae Service on Holy Wednesday and Good Friday. Tenebrae means ‘shadows’ or ‘darkness’, hence the Tenebrae Service takes place at dusk, when, during the ritual, the candles in the chapel are slowly extinguished one by one – until only one remains alight, which is then veiled.
The Miserere was a sacred piece of church music, hence it was forbidden by the Papal Authorities to copy or circulate the piece outside the Vatican. But, as a sublimely beautiful piece of Renaissance polyphony, written to be performed a capella by two choirs of five and four voices, it gained a certain notoriety, characterised by a transcendental air of mystery for those who had heard it, thereby gaining an even greater sense of mystery for those who had only ever heard tell of it.
It is impossible not to be moved by this piece of music. The first time you hear that high C is a musical moment you are likely to recall long after it has gently faded away to nothing. Ever since I first heard the Miserere it’s been one of my favourite choral works. And my liking for the piece of music grew further when I first heard the story of how the Miserere came to be known and delighted in beyond the walls of the Sistine Chapel. According to this story, on April 11th 1770 – when he was fourteen years old, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was visiting Rome with his family and attended the Holy Wednesday Tenebrae Service at the Sistine Chapel. According to surviving family letters he was so struck by the piece of music that later that same day he wrote it down from memory. He returned to the Chapel on Good Friday to hear it performed once again and to correct his copy. For this act of early 'bootlegging', instead of getting into trouble, the young Mozart was later invited to an audience with Pope Clement XIV and rewarded with a Papal Knighthood (the Chivalric Order of the Golden Spur; see here) on July 4th 1770. From this transcription the Miserere was first published the following year in England.
Here are the Tallis Scholars performing Allegri’s Miserere in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome in 1994. And I’m dedicating this to the memory of my dear friend, Kate.
Image at the top shows an Angel conquering Death, by Richard Westmacott (1775-1856), who also sculpted the pediment frieze of the British Museum (click on the image to link to its source)