Darkness and Mercy: The History of Allegri's Miserere
The fascinating history of this powerful Holy Week hymn
A famous anecdote holds that when Mozart was just fourteen years old, he heard Allegri’s Miserere in the Sistine Chapel and transcribed the music at home from memory. He later had this music published. The original tale claimed that Mozart heard the piece just once, although we now know that he probably had heard it more than once due to its popularity at that time. Regardless of the exact details surrounding the world’s first bootleg, Allegri’s Miserere remains a well-loved classical piece for the Lenten season, particular during Holy Week.
Allegri was an Italian Catholic priest and composer who lived in the 15th century. The Miserere—the full title of which is “Miserere mei, Deus”—is his most famous musical work. The lyrics are from Psalm 50 (51 in the newer counting), which bears the same title. Allegri’s piece is written for nine voices separated into two choirs, one consisting of four singers and the other of five. The two choirs sing separately for most of the piece before uniting for a quiet yet powerful ending.
Father Allegri, usually referred to as simply Allegri, composed his Miserere before the year 1638. It is written in a falsobordone setting, a medieval style of harmonization based on Gregorian Chant. In the Miserere, the two choirs each chant a plainsong melody, gradually incorporating harmony and swelling into the soaring high C that makes this piece so unforgettable. For those of you who understand musical terms, the highest note in this piece is exactly two octaves above middle C and takes an incredible amount of skill and vocal control to perform well. The harmonies reach their climax when the two choirs unite at the end of the piece, during which the tempo usually grows slower and more somber.
Allegri wrote his Miserere for the Office of Tenebrae in the Sistine Chapel. Tenebrae refers to Matins (the Divine Office hour during the night) and Lauds (the Divine Office hour at dawn) for the last three days of Holy Week: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Many parishes offer a public Office of Tenebrae on the evening of Spy Wednesday (Wednesday of Holy Week), giving Catholics the opportunity to hear Allegri’s Miserere sung in its original liturgical setting.
At Tenebrae, a special candelabra is used—known as a Tenebrae hearse—that holds fifteen candles. As the Psalms of the Office are chanted, the candles are extinguished one by one, symbolizing Christ’s Apostles who fled Him one by one at His Passion. The final candle in the center of the candelabra represents Christ and it alone remains lit. During the singing of Psalm 50—Allegri’s Miserere—the candle is hidden behind the altar to symbolize the darkness of Good Friday. After the Miserere is complete and before the Office ends, the candle is returned to its place in the candelabra, foreshadowing the light that we shall experience at the Easter Vigil.
Originally, Allegri’s Miserere was sung exclusively in the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican carefully guarded the music of the Sistine Chapel, making Mozart’s feat all the more daring. However, with time, illegal copies of the music began to spread throughout Europe and Allegri’s piece rapidly grew in popularity. Soon it was the only choral arrangement of Psalm 50 to be used at Tenebrae, a tradition that continues through the present day.
The version that we hear today is much different than what Allegri originally wrote and what was performed in the 1600s. The original had much less ornamentation than the modern version, and to someone who is very familiar with the modern version, the original can sound like a completely different piece. Some of the solo plainchant is immediately recognizable from the modern version, but the vast majority of the piece is different. Allegri used intervals that often sound dissonant to modern ears but are commonly used in Gregorian Chant, further enhancing the plaintive tone of the piece. The famous high C traces its roots to the manner in which the piece was performed: since the original music was so simple, choirs would often improvise embellishments. While the original piece certainly had high soprano notes, they were typically a series of connected high notes rather than the solitary high C that we hear today. Those interested in listening to a performance of the Miserere that is most like Allegri’s original composition can do so here.
Below is the modern version of Allegri’s Miserere, which includes the various edits made throughout the centuries. If you are less familiar with classical and/or choral music, you may find it very different from the sacred music that we usually hear at Mass today. Echoing the advice of my sacred music professor—and even that of Pope Benedict XVI when speaking about Mozart’s music—I encourage you to give yourself time and space to listen to Allegri’s piece and allow yourself to be carried into the music. The words that they are singing are the words of Psalm 50 (or Psalm 51 according to the numbering of many newer Bibles). This is the Psalm that King David wrote after committing adultery with Bathsheba; it is an acknowledgement of one’s sins and an earnest plea for God’s mercy. If you would like to read the words of the Psalm as you listen, you can find them in English here. Allegri’s Miserere is a truly moving and unforgettable piece, and I pray that it will help lead you deeper into the mystery of Christ’s Passion this Holy Week.
“Allegri’s Miserere: The Evolution of a Choral Masterpiece.” At Vancouver Cantata Singers, 20 February 2017, at vancouvercantatasingers.com.
BBC Music Magazine. “The Best Recordings of Allegri’s Miserere.” At Classical Music, 18 February 2015, at www.classical-music.com.
ClassicFM. “What Are the Origins of Allegri’s Miserere, and What Do the Lyrics Mean?” At Classic FM, 8 September 2022, at classicfm.com.
“Miserere.” At Classical Net, www.classical.net.
“Spy Wednesday Tenebrae Service.” At St. John Cantius Church, www.cantius.org.
The Sixteen. “The Sixteen: A New Version of Allegri’s Miserere.” At YouTube, 6 November 2013, at www.youtube.com.
Thurston, Herbert. “Tenebræ.” In The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. At New Advent, www.newadvent.org.
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Wow, I didn't know there were different editions. That earlier one sounded completely different and unrecognizable — that one sounded much more "modern" to me than the later one!
Fantastic, Chantal! Thank you for this! The Sacred Music class was a top favorite for me. 🥰