One piece is famous beyond the small circle of church music: the Allegri Miserere. It’s a hauntingly beautiful piece that goes between the simple chant melody of Psalm 51 (50) and cascading quartets, with the soprano going up to a high C, one of the highest notes a human voice can produce.
Its popularity is augmented by its intriguing, something-out-of-Indiana Jones like history. It was written by the Sistine Chapel composer Allegri around 1630 for matins during Holy Week on Wednesday and Friday. On penalty of excommunication the score was never to be seen or shown outside of the Chapel choir. The ornamentation was never written down at all, but passed along from singer to singer.
Audiences were allowed to attend matins even back then, and it became known as a “must-hear” for the elite, particularly those on the original Grand Tour of the 18th century.
Enter the 14-year-old Mozart, in Rome in 1770, during Holy Week. When he hears the Miserere, he decides to write it down, note for note, from memory. He goes back on Good Friday to double-check his work. (It's comforting that even geniuses need to double-check things.)
He shortly after encounters Dr. Charles Burney, the British church musician and musicologist. Somehow the piece passes into his hands, and he publishes it in 1771 (it seems excommunication was now off the table). The piece that is performed today was permutated over the centuries—-sometimes by design, sometimes by out-and-out mistakes of transcription—-so it is not very close at all to what Mozart heard. But what Allegri’s Miserere has become is still an exceptional musical experience that captures the imagination of most who hear it.
In the Movies and Onstage
I have sung the alto part numerous times, so I am privileged to know it very well. I heard it recently in two very surprising places.
One was me finally watching the John Woo movie Face/Off, with John Travolta and Nicholas Cage. At the end, at the funeral for the director whom Travolta has killed, we see the funeral procession, and the music is the Miserere. (While it is so closely associated with Good Friday, Psalm 51 itself is used for Catholic burial.) Suprisingly, it is not listed in the Wikipedia write-up for the film, which does list other classical music that is used. How could they miss it?
The other instance was in the play The Seafarer, the Irish play by Conor McPherson (more about it here). The play is set on CHRISTMAS Eve. They turn the radio on at one point, and there we hear the Allegri Miserere. Very strange. With so much great Christmas music available, why would Conor (who is also the director) choose that? If anyone knows how to reach him, I would love to get an explanation for this.
Here is the performance by the exquisite English group The Sixteen, with the words below. (The high C comes around 1:45 minutes in and is repeated every other verse.)
Miserere Mei Deus
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
4 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.
5 Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.
6 Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.
9 Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.
12 Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.
13 Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.
14 Deliver me from blood guiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
15 O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.
16 For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
18 Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.
19 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.
(Reposted and updated from 2008.)