Traditionally sung in the Vatican during Holy Week on Wednesday and Good Friday, the Miserere Mei was most likely composed during the 1630s by Gregorio Allegri under the reign of Pope Urban VIII.
This exquisite setting of Psalm 51 was jealously guarded by the Vatican: it is said that anyone who wrote the music down and tried to share or perform it elsewhere—outside of the Holy Week setting in the Sistine Chapel—would be punished by excommunication.
The form in which this piece has come down to us has been altered by the passage of time: different transcriptions at different times and in different keys (authorized and unauthorized) during the hundreds of years since its composition, along with the work of various editors and transcribers (including Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy), have led to the finished piece we hear today—most likely significantly altered from what the composer originally created.
There are no words to adequately describe the impact of human voices singing and chanting this exquisite work of heart-breaking beauty.
In continuance of a Good Friday tradition spanning almost 400 years, I would like to share with you the Miserere Mei:
Have mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness
According to the multitude of thy mercies, wash me throughly from my wickedness:
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my faults: and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in they sight:
that thou mightest be justified in thy saying, and clear when thou art judged.
Behold, I was shapen in wickedness: and in sin hath my mother conceived me.
But lo, thou requirest truth in the inward parts: and shalt make me to understand wisdom secretly.
Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness: that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.
Turn thy face from my sins: make me a clean heart, O God: and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy presence: and take not thy Holy Spirit from me.
O give me the comfort of thy help again: and stablish me with thy free Spirit.
Then shall I teach thy ways unto the wicked: and sinners shall be converted unto thee.
Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, thou art the God of my health:
And my tongue shall sing of thy righteousness.
Thou shalt open my lips, O Lord: and my mouth shall show thy praise.
For thou desirest no sacrifice, else would I give it thee: but thou delightest not in burnt-offerings.
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise.
O be favorable and gracious unto Sion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.
Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifice of righteousness, with the burnt-offerings and oblations:
Then shall they offer young bullocks upon thine altar.