While I think we should be perfectly comfortable living with some doubts about what we believe, my wish for everyone is that there would be one moment in your life when you knew with all your heart that God existed. One such moment for me was hearing Gregorio Allegri’s setting of Psalm 51, Miserere Mei, Deus for the first time many years ago. As it happens, this experience was at Winchester Cathedral during a performance that was part of the Southern Cathedrals Festival, so I grant that this was a setting where anyone would be likely to have a musical encounter with God.
Psalm 51 is part of the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, which marks the first day of Lent. Yesterday, at the church where I am currently serving, people received ashes on their foreheads as the choir sang Allegri’s work. My deepest hope is that the music created an incense of sound which enveloped their prayers. Or even better, perhaps it gave them a way to pray without using words.
The music’s three-part structure, alternating repetitions of a homophonic choral setting of the Miserere chant, men’s voices singing traditional plainsong, and a group of four soloists elaborating on the chant, work together to create a hypnotic effect. For me, hearing this piece can be an otherworldly experience, one which just may open a pathway to a deeper connection with God for some.
Perhaps, at this beginning to the season of Lent, you are able to take a few minutes from your day to hear a work of such beauty that surely God cannot be doubted. I particularly like this recording by the British ensemble The Sixteen. The music here communicates an urgency to the psalm’s plea that God have mercy on us, leaving us no room for rest or contentment in being without God.
Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness (Psalm 51:8)
Read the words Psalm 51. Listen to the music.
This is the kind of creation around which legends are created. Allegri (1582-1652), a singer in the Chapel Choir of Pope Urban VIII, probably composed his most famous work in the 1630’s. It is believed that it was sung exclusively in the Sistine Chapel, with threat of excommunication for anyone who transcribed the piece and sang it elsewhere. A very young Mozart is said to have written it down after hearing the music once in 1770 while visiting Rome, adding luster to his already obvious genius. He has been credited with making the music available to the rest of the world, though the details are murky around exactly how Allegri’s work escaped from the Vatican. Whatever the circumstances, Mozart was not excommunicated for his part in releasing its sheer beauty for all to enjoy, and I suggest that hearing this music is a way to be in communion with God.
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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.
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4 thoughts on “Miserere”
Thank you so much for sharing this sublime music and profound message.
Warm regards, Nirupama Rao
Sent from my iPhone
How lovely to hear from you and thank you for your kind message. I’m so glad you enjoyed hearing the Allegri. I hope all is well with you.
What an eloquent description of the relationship between music and faith! it echoes the words of one of my favorites, the writer Christian Wimans, who says that art can be a moment “when reason loses its hold on you.” Thank you.. Sonya.