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  • Writer's pictureSimon Rushby

Miserere mei, Deus by Gregorio Allegri

#listeneveryday 9 Feb 2021

In the 1630s, a member of the Sistine Chapel choir, Gregorio Allegri, composed a setting of Psalm 51, Miserere mei, Deus (Have mercy on me, Lord) for the Tenebrae services of Holy Week at the Vatican in the time of Pope Urban VIII.

There are a lot of stories surrounding the life of this very famous and beautiful setting. One is that the 14-year-old Mozart attended a service at the Vatican in 1770, and on hearing the Miserere he immediately went back to his room and wrote it all out. This story may well have some truth in it, especially as in Allegri's time it was forbidden to write down the music in case it was performed outside the Vatican.

Certainly we got hold of it somehow, and there are further stories of 19th-century composers Mendelssohn and Liszt making their own transcriptions, of the famous 'top C' being added into the score by mistake, and so on. What is certainly true is that Allegri's Miserere has become a magical, must-hear-it-live setting that is loved by Christians and non-Christians alike.

This performance was filmed by the vocal group Tenebrae in the impressive church of St. Bartholomew the Great in the Smithfield area of London. Tenebrae often use space to add drama and effect to their performances, and here they separate out the four solo parts from the five choir parts to enhance the polyphonic experience for the listener.

More to listen to

A performance of the Miserere by the choir of King's College, Cambridge, in 2015.

If you're interested in finding out more about Allegri's Miserere, there's a BBC documentary about it here.

A new #listeneveryday post is published every weekday! Comment below or tweet @SimonRushby with your suggestions for future music.

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