The work’s ti­tle is re­al­ly just Mis­erere (“have mer­cy on us”), but since so many com­posers have asked for mer­cy, and since Gre­go­rio Al­le­gri was sort of a one-hit won­der, ev­ery­body says it like in the ti­tle above. I think that we can each use all the di­vine mer­cy we can get, but maybe your need is less than mine. The (Lat­in, of course) text is Psalm 51. It’s a lit­tle over twelve min­utes of sim­ple soar­ing melody, built of a short choral frag­ment re­peat­ed five times, with a vari­a­tion last time around. It’s got a col­or­ful his­to­ry.

This Mis­erere was ap­par­ent­ly writ­ten in 1638 for the Catholic church and be­came re­gard­ed as what to­day we’d call “Intellectual Property” of the Vat­i­can; a Pope for­bade that it be per­formed any­where but in the Sis­tine Chapel, and al­so that no copies of the mu­sic could leave the Chapel. The sto­ry goes (ap­par­ent­ly with sup­port­ing ev­i­dence) that it was stolen by the pre-teen Mozart on tour with his fa­ther, who at­tend­ed a ser­vice in the Chapel then went back to the ho­tel and wrote it down. This is im­pres­sive but maybe not as in­sane as it sound­s; re­mem­ber, it’s a sin­gle mu­si­cal frag­ment be­tween two and three min­utes long, re­peat­ed five times with one vari­a­tion.

Any­how, the Mozart fam­i­ly passed the mu­sic along, and a few cen­turies lat­er it’s be­come a choir-concert chest­nut. I’ve nev­er heard a live per­for­mance in a church; it’s writ­ten for two choirs, one of five voic­es and one of four, singing a con­sid­er­able dis­tance (phys­i­cal I mean) apart, against each oth­er and fi­nal­ly in unison.

Tallis Scholars, Allegri and others

There’s a write-up at Medi­um that of­fers more chap­ters in the sto­ry, in­clud­ing how it came to have the fa­mous pas­sage where the high voice leaps up and up to an almost-unbearable sum­mit, then de­scends grace­ful­ly like a leaf in the wind. This may have been orig­i­nal­ly per­formed by cas­trati, and these days is con­ven­tion­al­ly sung by a boys’ choir, be­cause of their ethe­re­al high notes.

The record­ing I have, and hearti­ly rec­om­mend, is a 1980 out­ing by the Tal­lis Schol­ars, with the high part sung by so­pra­no Ali­son Stamp not a gag­gle of boys; her voice rich not ethe­re­al. Here’s the the link on the Gim­mell record la­bel site, which in turns links to Hyperion’s site which it­self links to the orig­i­nal CD lin­er notes, full of juicy in­fo about the work and per­form­er­s.

The record­ing al­so has Palestrina’s ex­cel­lent Pa­pal Mass and is re­al­ly great end-to-end.

This is en­try 100 in the Song of the Day se­ries (back­ground).

Links · Spo­ti­fy playlist. This mu­sic on Ama­zon, where they want to sell it as eleven seg­ments, so get the al­bum; on iTunes (sim­i­lar sto­ry), and Spo­ti­fy (al­bum link). Now, as for live video, this has sort of be­come a trade­mark of the Ox­ford Kings Col­lege Singers (with boys); here they are. But I rec­om­mend Ars No­va Copen­hagen, a small adult en­sem­ble; each singer in­hab­its his or her part en­tire­ly. The men get an infinitely-deep Gregorian-chant vibe par­tic­u­lar­ly on the Latin “e” vow­el, and the so­pra­no smiles as she leaps to that big high C, a wrin­kling of her fore­head the on­ly give­away that she’s go­ing to a place that very few hu­mans can reach. It’s a thrill to watch.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Leo T (Apr 10 2018, at 03:12)

It's an awesome piece of music. Appropriately enough, it's shortly after Easter, and one of the churches I attend uses this piece in their Holy Week ceremonies.

Performed by the Lassus Scholars (led by Dr Ité O'Donovan), it helps deepen my appreciation of what we're commemorating. Indeed, it's a shining example of the quote (mis)-attributed to Augustine - he who sings, prays twice.


From: IC (Apr 10 2018, at 14:31)

The Sixteen's interpretation is pretty good too:

Also, its story in BBC's Sacred Music documentary:


From: David Magda (Apr 10 2018, at 19:03)

Speaking of vocal works: will there be any Rachmaninoff Vespers or the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom? (Of course he has many other wonderful works.)

Though the twentieth century was supposedly more secular (certainly in relative terms), some astounding religious composers have been around: the above, Pärt, Górecki, John Tavener (e.g., "Song for Athene").


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