Psalm 51. Miserere mei, Deus

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About this Psalm
Anglican chant setting by C. H. Wilton
Plainchant from the Roman Gradual
Miserere mei, Deus by Josquin des Prez (1450?-1551)
Miserere mei, Deus by Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594)
Miserere mei, Deus by William Byrd (1543-1623)
Miserere mei, Deus by Gregorio Allegri (c. 1582-1652)
Miserere by James MacMillan (b. 1959)

The English text for this Psalm is presented below; the complete Latin text, with an English translation, is available here.

About this Psalm

Psalm 51 is one of seven penitential psalms, (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143). The first three words in the Latin text of this psalm are Miserere mei, Deus (“Have mercy on me, O God”), and musical settings of the psalm — of which there have been many — are often referred to simply as Miserere.

In the Anglican tradition, it is sung or recited on Ash Wednesday, and it is employed in Roman Catholic liturgies (it is designated as Psalm 50 in the Vulgate) during Holy Week.

Verse 4 has multiple translations, which may lead to some confusion. The version in the Book of Common Prayer (1928) renders the verse: “Against thee only have I sinned and done this evil in thy sight; that thou mightest be justified in thy saying and clear when thou shalt judge.” Other translations (based on the Septuagint version of the Psalter as quoted in Romans 3:4) present the last phrase as: “and clear when thou art judged.” This is a strange translation, as the sense of the text in the original Hebrew is clearly (in Derek Kidner’s words) “that no-one could find fault — even if it were our place to do so — with God’s judgment on the sinner.”

Some older editions of the Book of Common Prayer follow the lead set by the Septuagint. The Anglican chant recording of this psalm presented below reflects that interpretation. When we sing this Psalm in our parish, we use the text as translated in our Prayerbook.

Anglican chant setting by C. H. Wilton

While all psalms may be sung to any Anglican chant setting, the setting by Charles H. Wilton (1761-1832) is especially apt for the penitential spirit of the text. Wilton was an English violinist, singer, and composer, not much associated with church music, save for this Anglican chant.

The performance here includes all 19 verses of the psalm; when we use this chant liturgically, we sometimes sing only the first 13 verses, followed by the Gloria Patri. You may download a score with the text pointed for chanting here.

1   Have mercy upon me, O God  |  after thy    great  |  goodness :
         according to the multitude of
       thy mercies  |  do a|way • mine of|fences.
2   Wash me |  throughly    from my  |  wickedness :
       and  |  cleanse me  |  from my  |  sin.
3   For I ac|knowledge    my  |  faults :
       and my  |  sin is  |  ever    be|fore me.
4   Against thee only have I sinned  *
          and done this  |  evil    in thy  |  sight :
       that thou mightest be justified in thy saying  *
          and  |  clear when  |  thou shalt  |  judge.
5   Behold, I was  |  shapen    in  |  wickedness :
       and in  |  sin    hath my  |  mother    con|ceived me.
6   But lo, thou requirest truth in the  |  inward  |  parts :
       and shalt make me to  |  under    stand  |  wisdom  |  secretly.
7   Thou shalt purge me with hyssop and  |  I shall    be  |  clean :
       thou shalt wash me and  |  I shall    be  |  whiter    than  |  snow.
8   Thou shalt make me hear of  |  joy and  |  gladness :
       that the bones which thou hast  |  broken  |  may re|joice.
9   Turn thy  |  face    from my  |  sins :
       and  |  put out  |  all    my mis|deeds.
10   Make me a clean  |  heart O  |  God :
       and re|new a    right  |  spirit    with|in me.
11   Cast me not a|way    from thy  |  presence :
       and take not thy  |  holy  |  Spirit  |  from me.
12   O give me the comfort of thy  |  help a|gain :
       and  |  stablish me    with thy  |  free  |  Spirit.
13   Then shall I teach thy  |  ways    unto the  |  wicked :
       and sinners shall be con|verted  |  unto |  thee.      

   Glory be |  to the |  Father
       and to the  |  Son and    to the  |  Holy  |  Ghost;
   As it was in the beginning  *  is  |  now and    ever  |  shall be :
       world without  |  end, A- |  | men.

Plainchant from the Roman Gradual

The Roman Gradual is an official liturgical text for use in the Roman Catholic Church. Since 2012, the association Gregoriana has been working to record all of the plainchant in the Roman Gradual. Here is the chant setting of Misereri mei, Deus. The Latin text of the Psalm with an English translation is available here.

Miserere mei, Deus by Josquin des Prez (1450?-1551)

The remarkable structure of Josquin’s setting of the text of Psalm 51 is discussed in the essay “Artful Repentance.”

The performance below by the ensemble Magnificat, conducted by Philip Cave, is from their album Scattered Ashes: Josquin’s Miserere and the Savonarolan Legacy . The Latin text of the Psalm with an English translation is available here.

Miserere mei, Deus by Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594)

The setting by Lassus of Psalm 51 is one of seven settings of penitential psalms that he composed in the late 1550s. You may read more about these in the essay, “Eloquent Lamentation.” The performance below is by the Collegium Vocale Gent, conducted by Phillippe Herrweghe. The Latin text of the Psalm with an English translation is available here.

Miserere mei, Deus by William Byrd (1543-1623)

The great pioneer of the Anglican choral tradition, William Byrd, set only the first verse of Psalm 51. In the past, our choir has sung this motet on Ash Wednesday. Here it is sung by the Cambridge Singers, conducted by John Rutter. The Latin text of the Psalm with an English translation is available here.

Miserere mei, Deus by Gregorio Allegri (c. 1582-1652)

Allegri’s setting of this text is easily the most famous. The work was composed sometime before 1638 for use in the Sistine Chapel. Conductor Peter Phillips reports that “by the middle of the eighteenth century it had become so famous that the Papacy forbade anyone to sing it outside the Sistine Chapel, in order to enhance the reputation of the Papal choir. It is alleged that the music finally escaped when Mozart at the age of fourteen wrote it down from memory.” There is no doubt that Mozart performed this remarkable feat of memory, as his father wrote about it to his mother. But by the time the young prodigy had committed this act of intellectual property theft, there were already copies of Allegri’s music available outside the Vatican.

The music is simple, depending for its power on talented performers capable of accuracy in tuning and in adding embellishments to Allegri’s simple chords, a practice that animated much of the music of the Baroque.

This recording of Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus by the ensemble Tenebrae features a display of the score. The Latin text of the Psalm with an English translation is available here.

In February 1994, Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars performed on the 400th anniversary of the death of Palestrina in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, where Palestrina had trained as a choirboy and later worked as Maestro di Cappella. One of the pieces they recorded was Allegri’s Misereri mei, Deus. This video helps listeners (as viewers) identify the three separate choirs that comprise Allegri’s nine-part harmony. The singers are situated in different spaces in the Basilica, as the composer no doubt intended. The Latin text of the Psalm with an English translation is available here.

Miserere by James MacMillan (b. 1959)

You may read about James MacMillan’s life and work in “Echoes of Glory.” MacMillan’s setting of the text of Psalm 51 was first performed in 2009, and was dedicated to conductor Harry Christophers. He directs the premiere recording by The Sixteen in the recording below. The Latin text of the Psalm with an English translation is available here.