This week we’re looking at one of the best known choral pieces from the Classical Period. This piece was famously transcribed by 14 year old Mozart after two listenings (which, after considering it’s one basic section repeated over and over, isn’t all that impressive).
The lyrics are from the Latin Psalm 51, which translates as follows:
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 lay calves upon Your altar.
The piece was composed to be used during a Tenebrae service, which is one of the most solemn of church services. “Tenebrae” is Latin for “shadows”, and this particular service celebrates the crucifixion of Christ. You read Bible passages and sing hymns which gradually tell the story of the crucifixion. It begins with fifteen lit candles, which are extinguished one by one as the crucifixion draws near. It ends with the “strepitus” or “loud noise,” signifying the closing of the tomb. The final candle is blown out and everyone leaves in silence, meeting again on Easter Sunday, where the candle is relit to signify the Ressurrection. Miserere was meant to be sung after the extinguishing of the third candle.
This piece beautifully captures the sorrow and hope of this service. In this particular recording, it is sung in various styles which would have been heard at the time, which are explained here: http://ancientgroove.co.uk/essays/allegri.html