Miserere by Gregorio Allegri (also called "Miserere mei, Deus" - English "Have mercy on me, O God") is a setting of Psalm 51 (50) composed during the reign of Pope Urban VIII, probably during the 1630s, for use in the Sistine Chapel during matins on Wednesday and Friday of Holy Week. It was the last of twelve falsobordone Miserere settings composed and chanted at the service since 1514 and the most popular: at some point, it became forbidden to transcribe the music and it was only allowed to be performed at those particular services, adding to the mystery surrounding it. Writing it down or performing it elsewhere was punishable by excommunication. The setting that escaped from the Vatican is actually a conflation of verses set by Gregorio Allegri around 1638 and Tommaso Bai (1650 - 1718, also spelled "Baj") in 1714.
The Miserere is written for two choirs, one of five and one of four voices. One of the choirs sings a simple version of the original Miserere chant; the other, spatially separated, sings an ornamented "commentary" on this. Many have cited this work as an example of the stile antico or prima pratica. However, its constant use of the dominant seventh chord and its emphasis on polychoral techniques certainly put it out of the range of prima pratica. A more accurate comparison would be to the works of Giovanni Gabrieli.
Although there were a handful of supposed transcriptions in various royal courts in Europe, none of them succeeded in capturing the beauty of the Miserere as performed annually in the Sistine Chapel. According to the popular story (backed up by family letters), the fourteen-year-old Mozart was visiting Rome, when he first heard the piece during the Wednesday service. Later that day, he wrote it down entirely from memory, returning to the Chapel that Friday to make minor corrections. Some time during his travels, he met the British historian Dr Charles Burney, who obtained the piece from him and took it to London, where it was published in 1771. Once published, the ban was lifted and Allegri's Miserere has since become one of the most popular a cappella choral works now performed. The work was also transcribed by Felix Mendelssohn in 1831 and Franz Liszt, and various other 18th and 19th century sources survive.
Mozart was summoned to Rome by the Pope, only instead of excommunicating the boy the Pope showered praises on him for his feat of musical genius.
Burney's edition did not include the ornamentation or "abbellimenti" that made the work famous. The original ornamentations were Renaissance techniques that preceded the composition itself, and it was these techniques that were closely guarded by the Vatican. Few written sources (not even Burney's) showed the ornamentation, and it was this that created the legend of the work's mystery. However, the Roman priest Pietro Alfieri published in 1840 an edition with the intent of preserving the performance practice of the Sistine choir in the Allegri and Bai compositions, including ornamentation.
The Miserere is one of the most often-recorded examples of late Renaissance music.
The Miserere is regularly performed on Ash Wednesday in English cathedrals.
Miserere mei, Deus: secundum magnam misericordiam tuam.
Et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum, dēlē iniquitatem meam.
Amplius lavā me ab iniquitate mea: et a peccato meo mundā me.
Quoniam iniquitatem meam ego cognōscō: et peccatum meum contra me est semper.
Tibi soli peccāvī, et malum coram te fēcī: ut iustificeris in sermonibus tuis, et vincās cum iudicaris.
Ecce enim in inquitatibus conceptus sum: et in peccatis concepit me mater mea.
Ecce enim veritatem dilexisti: incerta et occulta sapientiae tuae manifestasti mihi.
Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo, et mundābor: lavābis me, et super nivem dēalbābor.
Auditui meo dabis gaudium et laetitiam: et exsultabunt ossa humiliata.
Averte faciem tuam a peccatis meis: et omnes iniquitates meas dele.
Cor mundum crea in me, Deus: et spiritum rectum innova in visceribus meis.
Ne proiicias me a facie tua: et spiritum sanctum tuum ne auferas a me.
Redde mihi laetitiam salutaris tui: et spiritu principali confirma me.
Docebo iniquos vias tuas: et impii ad te convertentur.
Libera me de sanguinibus, Deus, Deus salutis meae: et exsultabit lingua mea iustitiam tuam.
Domine, labia mea aperies: et os meum annuntiabit laudem tuam.
Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium, dedissem utique: holocaustis non delectaberis.
Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus: cor contritum, et humiliatum, Deus, non despicies.
Benigne fac, Domine, in bona voluntate tua Sion: ut aedificentur muri Ierusalem.
Tunc acceptabis sacrificium iustitiae, oblationes, et holocausta: tunc imponent super altare tuum vitulos.
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness:
According unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
Wash me from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.
Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.
Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.
Create in 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.
Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.
Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.
Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.