Psalm 51.Miserere mei, Deus

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About this Psalm
Plainchant from the St. Dunstan’s Plainsong Psalter
Plainchant from the Roman Gradual
Anglican chant setting by C. H. Wilton
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)
Have mercy upon me by George Frideric Handel (1685–1757)
Miserere by James MacMillan (b. 1959)

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.

Plainchant from the St. Dunstan’s Plainsong Psalter

The recording below is based on the Sarum Psalm tones as presented in the St. Dunstan’s Plainsong Psalter. It is chanted to Tone IV 4.

When viewed directly on YouTube, this video also presents commentary on the text of this Psalm.

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.

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 recording below — recorded by our choir as part of our Choir in Quarantine project — includes only the first 13 verses, followed by the Gloria Patri. You may scroll up to the text, or download a score with the text pointed for chanting 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 Hilliard Ensemble, conducted by Paul Hillier. 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.

Have mercy upon me (Chandos Anthem #3) by George Frideric Handel (1685-1757)

While serving as composer in residence to James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos, Handel composed eleven anthems for use in the Duke’s chapel. Similar in scale and structure to Bach’s cantatas, these works are known collectively as the Chandos Anthems.

The third of these works is based on verses from Psalm 51. Much of the work is marked by an appropriately penitential and introspective mood, sung principally by soprano and tenor soloists. However, on the words “Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness,” there erupts a joyous chorus, with an animated fugue on the words “that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.” The words “Then shall I teach thy ways unto the wicked” close the work, sung to a confident double fugue.

The performance below is by The Sixteen Choir and Orchestra, Harry Christophers, conductor. The soloists are soprano Lynne Dawson and tenor Ian Partridge.

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.