Framed in passion

Posted on: 6 March 2021, by :

Psalm 51, the Miserere, occupies the central position of the seven Penitential Psalms and probably remains the one most frequently read or sung today. Being a deeply personal text for self-examination—it uses the first person throughout: have mercy on me … cleanse me … deliver me … open my lips—it does not easily adapt for people acting together, although by tradition countless congregations heard it in Latin, in many cases without much understanding. Music, of course, glosses how the psalm is received. The setting by Gregorio Allegri for the Sistine Chapel, that we considered last year, possesses a beauty that for some enables a kind of ecstasy for contrition, comfortable in its religiosity. In contrast, the setting by Jan Dismas Zelenka, ZWV 57, provokes a powerful reaction that is far from comfortable, at least with its opening movement that sets only the first three words, ‘Miserere mei, Deus’ (Have mercy on me, O God). The strong dissonances and the cutting rhythms in a sustained onslaught from the instruments disturb and challenge the hearer, and the work ends with a reprise of the same music. By this means Zelenka frames the psalm with a forceful passion that does not allow listeners to hide behind the fact of not understanding the Latin.

The second movement is a fugue that by itself delivers the whole of the psalm. It is highly condensed—all nineteen verses take only five minutes, and some portions of the Latin occur without repetition in only one of the four vocal parts—but the words ‘Miserere mei, Deus’ are reiterated as the fugue subject throughout. The Doxology follows in movements iii-v, and even here the same motto of ‘Miserere mei, Deus’ is worked in:

iii (with solo soprano):
Gloria Patri, et Fílio, et Spiritui Sancto.

iv (choral): Gloria Patri, et Fílio, et Spirtui Sancto.

v: Miserere mei, Deus.
Sicut erat in principio, et nunc et semper, et in saecula sæculorum. Amen.

vi (reprise of movement i): Miserere mei, Deus.

* *  This is the third post in a series for Lent and Holy Week, 2021 * *

Above: The opening movement of Zelenka’s Miserere in C minor, ZWV 57, performed by the Accademia Barocca Lucernensis, directed by Javier Ulises Illán, in a CD-recording session in 2019.

Below: A concert performance of the whole work in Maria Magdalena Church, Stockholm, on 17 November 2019 by the Maria Magdalena Vokalensemble and instrumentalists, directed by Mats Nilsson.

Zelenka composed the work in 1738 (his manuscript is dated 12 March, the Wednesday in the fourth week of Lent in that year) in Dresden, where he was the official composer for church music at the court of Friedrich August, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland.

1 Miserere mei Deus secundum magnam misericordiam tuam
et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum dele iniquitatem meam.
2 Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea et a peccato meo munda me.
3 Quoniam iniquitatem meam ego cognosco et peccatum meum contra me est semper.
4 Tibi soli peccavi et malum coram te feci ut iustificeris
in sermonibus tuis et vincas cum iudicaris.
5 Ecce enim in iniquitatibus conceptus sum et in peccatis concepit me mater mea.
6 Ecce enim veritatem dilexisti incerta et occulta
sapientiae tuae manifestasti mihi.
7 Asparges me hysopo et mundabor lavabis me
et super nivem dealbabor.
8 Auditui meo dabis gaudium et laetitiam exultabunt ossa humiliata.
9 Averte faciem tuam a peccatis meis et omnes iniquitates meas dele.
10 Cor mundum crea in me Deus et spiritum rectum innova in visceribus meis.
11 Ne proicias me a facie tua et spiritum sanctum tuum ne auferas a me.
12 Redde mihi laetitiam salutaris tui
et spiritu principali confirma me.
13 Docebo iniquos vias tuas et impii ad te convertentur.
14 Libera me de sanguinibus Deus Deus salutis
meae exultabit lingua mea iustitiam tuam.
15 Domine labia mea aperies et os meum adnuntiabit laudem tuam.
16 Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium dedissem utique
holocaustis non delectaberis.
17 Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus
cor contritum et humiliatum Deus non spernet.
18 Benigne fac Domine in bona voluntate tua Sion et aedificentur muri Hierusalem.
19 Tunc acceptabis sacrificium iustitiae oblationes et holocausta tunc inponent super altare tuum vitulos.

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.