‘Let me hear joy and gladness’ (Holy Week, Tuesday)

Posted on: 6 April 2020, by :

For Tuesday of Holy Week. This is the third post in a series for Holy Week and Easter Day, 2020.

Psalm 51, one of the penitential psalms sometimes referred to as simply the Miserere, is frequently said or sung during Lent in both Roman Catholic and various Protestant traditions, notably as part of Tenebrae services during Holy Week. The musical setting that remains the most loved today is the famous one written for the Papal choir of the Sistine Chapel by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652), dating from the 1630s.

1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love:
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity: and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions: and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight:
so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.
5 Surely I was sinful at birth: sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb:
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean:
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness: let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins: and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God: and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence: or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation:
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways:
so that sinners will turn back to you.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God you who are God my Saviour: and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15 Open my lips, Lord: and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it:
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit:
a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.
18 May it please you to prosper Zion: to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous, in burnt offerings offered whole: then bulls will be offered on your altar.

A recording of 1993 sung by the ensemble ‘A Sei Voci’. The edition, by Jean Lionnet, is a reconstruction — but with improvised ornamentation — from 17th-century sources.

The frequently heard, much loved (but technically wrong) version, sung here by the choir of Clare College, Cambridge. The famous high C occurs first in the phrase beginning 1:39 in.

Allegri’s Miserere remained famous in later centuries because of the continuous tradition of its performance in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week: it became legendary and attracted fake news. The myth that the Papacy would excommunicate anyone who stole the music was probably the result of deliberate fashioning of a special mystique for the work. To some visitors who heard the music in amazement in the vast sonorous acoustic of the Chapel (to get an impression, listen to this), it must indeed have seemed mysterious, not least because it changed from one performance to another with the ornamentation that the virtuoso singers routinely improvised. While the essential phrasing, part-writing and harmony are quite straightforward for an experienced musician to put into written notation, it was this normal practice of extempore singing that helped to protect the work as the exclusive property of the Sistine Chapel, to be heard nowhere else. The version that young Mozart ‘stole’ in 1770 by transcribing what he had heard would have been accurate but only one of many possible variants. We can be sure, at least, that what he and others heard would have been closer to the music in the first of these videos than to that in the second. There was no definitive or single ‘correct’ version.

The great irony is that the music that did eventually become widely published, hugely loved and very frequently performed in modern times is probably the most faulty version of all! Arising from an error in scholarship made late in the nineteenth century, it has an entire phrase that was misplaced with an awkward shift of key that was never intended. Moreover, this wrong phrase, which occurs five times within the piece, is the one that many listeners understandably love the most — where the uppermost voice soars to a very high pitch, the famous high C.