Psalm 51 (Greek numbering: Psalm 50), traditionally referred to as the Miserere, its Latin incipit, is one of the penitential psalms. It begins: Have mercy on me, O God.
The psalm's opening words in Latin, Miserere mei, Deus, have led to its being called the Miserere Mei or even just Miserere. It is often known by this name in musical settings.
include introductory text ("superscription
") in the manuscript attributing it to a particular author and sometimes to an occasion. There is no reason to believe that this could be written by another author.
The New King James Version of the Bible introduces it: To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.
But the Hebrew linguist and scholar Robert Alter identifies an additional jagged sharpness and translates it: ...a David psalm, upon Nathan the prophet's coming to him when he had come to bed with Bathsheba. He comments: 'The Hebrew verb used for both Nathan and David is "to come to [or "into"]," but in the former instance it refers to the prophet's entering the king's chambers, whereas the latter instance reflects its sexual sense.'
The superscription in the Septuagint reads: "For the End: A Psalm of David, When Nathan the Prophet Came unto Him, When He Went in unto Bersabee (Batheshba) the Wife of Urias."
Robert Alter has Do not fling me from Your presence
, commenting: 'as elsewhere, this Hebrew verb has a connotation of violent action for which the conventional translation of it as "cast" is too tame.'
The psalm is frequently used in various liturgical traditions because of its beautiful spirit of humility and repentance.
Verse 15 is recited as a preface to the Amidah, the central prayer in the Siddur, the Jewish liturgy.
As a penitential psalm, Psalm 50 (using the Septuagint numbering) is one of the most frequently used psalms in the Eastern Orthodox Church and those Eastern Catholic Churches which follow the Byzantine Rite. It is typically included during the Mystery of Repentance (corresponding to the sacrament of confession), in personal daily prayers, and many of the liturgical services. The various services of the Daily Office may be combined into three aggregates (evening, morning and noonday), and are so arranged that Psalm 50 is read during each aggregate.
In the Agpeya, Coptic Church's book of hours, it is recited at every office throughout the day as a prayer of confession and repentance.
In Western Christianity, Psalm 51 (using the Masoretic numbering) is also used liturgically.
In the Roman Catholic Church this psalm may be assigned by a priest to a penitent as a penance after Confession. Verse 7 of the psalm is traditionally sung as the priest sprinkles holy water over the congregation before Mass, in a rite known as the Asperges me, the first two words of the verse in Latin. It also is prayed in Morning Prayer every Friday in the Liturgy of the Hours.
Psalm 51 is associated with Ash Wednesday as a scripture reading in both the Revised Common Lectionary and the Roman Catholic Lectionary
The Miserere was a frequently-used text in Catholic liturgical music
before Vatican II
. Most of the settings, which are often used at Tenebrae
, are in a simple falsobordone
style. During the Renaissance many composers wrote settings. The earliest known polyphonic setting, probably dating from the 1480s, is by Johannes Martini
, a composer working in the Este
court in Ferrara
. The extended polyphonic setting
by Josquin des Prez
, probably written in 1503/1504 in Ferrara, was likely inspired by the prison meditation Infelix ego
by Girolamo Savonarola
, who was burned at the stake
just five years before. Later in the 16th century Orlande de Lassus
wrote an elaborate setting as part of his Penitential Psalms
, and Palestrina
, Andrea Gabrieli
, Giovanni Gabrieli
, and Carlo Gesualdo
also wrote settings. Antonio Vivaldi
may have written a setting or settings, but such composition(s) have been lost, with only two introductory motets
remaining. Settings were also written by Johann Sebastian Bach
and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi
One of the best-known settings of the Miserere is the 17th century version by Roman School composer Gregorio Allegri. According to a famous story, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, aged only fourteen, heard the piece performed once, on April 11, 1770, and after going back to his lodging for the night was able to write out the entire score from memory. He went back a day or two later with his draft to correct some errors. That the final chorus comprises a ten-part harmony underscores the prodigiousness of the young Mozart's musical genius. The piece is also noteworthy in having numerous high C's in the treble solos.
Modern composers who have written notable settings of the Miserere include Michael Nyman and Arvo Pärt.
- John Caldwell: "Miserere", Stanley Boorman, "Sources: MS", Stanley Sadie, "Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus"; Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed November 25, 2006), (subscription access)
- Patrick Macey, Bonfire Songs: Savonarola's Musical Legacy. Oxford, Clarendon Press. 1998. ISBN 0-19-816669-9