I’ve been saving this one for Easter, as although the text is for Ash Wednesday, the Sistine Chapel Choir, for whom it was composed, sung it on Good Friday too, and after last night’s ‘Interval Discussion’ about currently singing it with The Self Isolation Choir, I’m passing it to you now.

We know that the version sung by British choirs today is a conflation of misunderstandings spanning several generations: those famous high Cs have nothing to do with Allegri’s score. Although Allegri’s score hasn’t survived, the version below, composed c1714 by Tommaso Bai, choirmaster of St Peter’s Basilica, is closely modelled on it. Here it’s sung one-to-a-part by the Abbey Consort, a group of nine adult singers from Westminster Abbey Choir. The recording was made in 1996.

Just listen to that Plainchant!

Mendelssohn’s reaction on hearing it in the Sistine Chapel is recorded as:

A deathlike silence prevailed in  the whole chapel. For an hour and a half previously, a single line of chant had been heard, almost without variation. And now the ‘Miserere’ commences, with the chords softly breathed out by the voices, causing everyone to feel in his heart the power of music. The best voices are reserved for the ‘Miserere’, which is sung with a great variety of effect, the voices swelling, dying away, from the softest ‘piano’ to the full strength of the choir. No wonder that it delights emotion in every listener.

The words are from Psalm 51 – a translation may be found here.


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