Gregorio Allegri

Miserere mei Deus (Psalm 51), motet for chorus

    Description by Timothy Dickey

    It is Holy Week in Rome, the heart of christendom. Dusk has fallen and the solemn service of Tenebrae is concluding. One by one the candles are snuffed, leaving the congregation in darkness. For hundreds of years, the papal choir -- one of the most conservative musical establishments in the world -- observed the entire service in plainchant, from the Lamentations of Jeremiah to the Responsories that narrate Christ's suffering and death. Then, at the very end of the day, the full choir breaks into parts for one piece: Gregorio Allegri's Miserere.

    The Medici Pope Leo X first mandated the silent recitation of Psalm 51 at the conclusion of Tenebrae. Each Catholic soul across the world considers, then, David's desperate poetic plea for God's mercy. The Pope's own singers, however, quickly adopted the practice of a fully polyphonic performance of the Psalm (later in the fifteenth century, Palestrina contributed a setting). Allegri joined the papal choir in 1629, serving for the rest of his life. In the 1630s he composed a setting of Miserere mei for Holy Week that eventually became his greatest musical legacy. The papal choir sang it every year from the seventeenth century until the choir collapsed in 1870. Louis Spohr knew the piece, and the young Felix Mendelssohn heard it sung once. The penalty for copying its music, which the papal choir considered its exclusive property, was excommunication.

    Allegri's musical structure follows what by then was common practice for the singing of this Psalm: alternation between plainchant verses and different choral elaborations of the chant. His Miserere opens with a five-voiced choir that harmonizes the first Psalm verse, with the chant melody known as the tonus peregrinus. Allegri's music uses the conservative and balanced stile antico, the classic ancient style of Palestrina. Some imitation is present, and Allegri spices the harmonies with rich, dissonant suspensions. A simple chanted verse follows, then a verse sung by a distant choir of four soloists. Each solo verse over the years of its performance became gradually encrusted with a rich oral tradition of abbellimenti, the characteristic traceries of vocal ornamentation by the best singers in the Catholic Church. The great castrati (male sopranos) added an angelic leap to high C at the crux of each solo verse. The very final solo verse leads not into the expected chant, but instead a choral refrain that includes the full nine-voiced texture; gradually, though, the dynamic recedes into the shadows.

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2016 DG Archiv B002476102
    2016 Harmonia Mundi HMW 906103
    2015 DG Deutsche Grammophon B002379802
    2015 Warner Classics 825646143511
    2015 Alto MCSCD 1270
    2015
    Lux
    Decca 4788053
    2015
    Lux
    Decca
    2015 Decca 4788918
    2015 Classic FM 4812034
    2014 Classic FM / Decca CFMD 34
    2014 Naxos 8573196
    2014 Linn Records BKD 052
    2014 DG Deutsche Grammophon
    2014 DG Deutsche Grammophon B 002132702
    2014 Decca 4820231
    2013 Analekta AN 29848
    2013 Naïve NC 40032
    2013 Gimell GIMBD 641
    2013 Archiv Produktion 002894791045AB55
    2013 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099972344
    2013 Hyperion CDH 55445
    2013 Decca CDNNNOW 9
    2013 Gimell CDGIM 212
    2013 Decca
    2013 Decca
    2013 Decca
    2013 Decca
    2013 Decca
    2013 Coro COR 16118
    2012 Classic FM
    2012 Decca
    2012 Signum Classics SIGCD 279
    2012 Erato / Virgin Classics 5099960266
    2012 ABC Classics ABC 4765055
    2012 Decca
    2012 Decca 4783622
    2012 Delphian DCD 34103
    2012 Erato / Virgin Classics 5099960257
    2012 Signum Classics SIGCD 304
    2012 Classic FM / Decca CFMD 23
    2012 Naxos 8578210
    2012 Naxos 8501062
    2012 Brilliant Classics 94412
    2012 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099967830
    2012 Naïve V 5313
    2012 Erato / Virgin Classics 5099960264
    2012 EMI Classics
    2012 Coro COR 16099
    2012 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099967901
    2011 Classics & Jazz / Universal / Universal Classics & Jazz
    2011 Universal Classics & Jazz
    2011 Newton Classics 8802042
    2011 Decca
    2011 Brilliant Classics 9234
    2011 Hyperion CDA 67860
    2011 Brilliant Classics 94211
    2011 EMI Classics
    2011 Decca
    2011 Alto 2011
    2011 MSR Classics MS 1138
    2011 EMI Classics 9187332
    2011 Warner Classics
    2011 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099908878922
    2011 Christophorus CHR77345
    2010 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099960900
    2010 Alto 1085
    2010 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099945751
    2010 EMI Classics / EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099964044
    2010 Decca
    2010 EMI / EMI Classics VTDCDX 1004
    2010 EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics 5099968859
    2010 Chandos 5085
    2010 Naïve 5218
    2010 Naxos 857016970
    2010 Brilliant Classics 94032
    2009 Jade / Milan
    2009 Sony BMG / Sony Classical 7532082
    2009 DG Deutsche Grammophon
    2009 Signum Classics / Signum UK 180
    2009 Coro 16073
    2009 Sony Classical Essential Classics 88697532092
    2008 Virgin / Virgin Classics 8263742
    2008 Warner Classics
    2008 RCA Red Seal 722378
    2008 ABC Classics 4766830
    2007 Naïve 8524
    2007 Gimell 41
    2007 EMI Music Distribution
    2007 Decca
    2007 Classic FM 53
    2007 Classic Mania 93320
    2007 Universal Classics & Jazz
    2006 Signum UK 085
    2006 Jade / Milan
    2006 Brilliant 99452
    2006 Universal Distribution / UCJ / Universal International 4763107
    2005 Gimell 401
    2005 Virgin 62498
    2005 Naxos 8 558160/1
    2005 Meridian Records 84522
    2005 Virgin / EMI Music Distribution VTDCD601
    2005 Brilliant Classics 92330
    2005 Virgin Classics / Warner Classics 7243557876
    2005 Decca 000453102
    2004 ABC Classics 472881
    2004 Decca 475 6124
    2004 Brilliant 99287
    2004 Resonance CDRSN3011
    2004 Universal Distribution 9868054
    2004 Universal Distribution 000344302
    2004 DG Deutsche Grammophon / Universal Music Classics and Jazz
    2004 Decca
    2003 Virgin Classics 562126
    2003 EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics 7243575877
    2003 Coro 16014
    2003 Priory Records 657
    2003 Gimell 201
    2003 BMG 82876571402
    2003 RCA Victor 82876514382
    2003 Black Box Classics 1068
    2002 EMI Music Distribution 575560
    2002 Metro 7006
    2002 Gimell 994
    2002 RCA 09026638682
    2001 CD Accord 070
    2001 Naxos 8 556712
    2001 RCA 63760
    2000 Erato 4295882
    2000 Christophorus 0109
    2000 Decca 467431
    2000 Virgin 61309
    2000 Naxos 8551201
    2000 Naxos 6803
    2000 Naxos 556810
    2000 Hyperion SPCC 2000
    1999 K 617 617015
    1999 Decca 466373
    1999 BMG / RCA 69815
    1999 Astree 129005
    1999 Naxos 8 556705
    1999 Jvc Victor / Victor Records 60517
    1999 Arion 58438
    1999 Vox Box/essex / Masterpiece / SPJ Music 3900
    1999 Naxos 553238
    1999 K 617 7047
    1999 Polygram 466075
    1999 BMG 51353
    1998 CCn'C 00382
    1998 Naxos 8556628
    1998 Guild 7148
    1998 London 452949
    1998 Carlton Classics 3036801097
    1998 Masterpiece 92006
    1998 Linn Records 052
    1998 Gimell 454990
    1998 Decca 4600212
    1998 Forlane 16771
    1997 Erato 630146342
    1997 Rivoalto 9510
    1997 Conifer 75605 51308-2
    1997 Columns 555012
    1997 DG Deutsche Grammophon 453907
    1997 York Ambisonic 107
    1997 RCA Victor Red Seal 68606
    1997 RCA Victor Red Seal 74321 45311-2
    1996 Decca 448716
    1996 Collins Records 50092
    1996 Hyperion 66850
    1996 Sony Classical 66615
    1996 EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics 7243569107
    1996 Collegium Records 502
    1995 Telstar 2800
    1995 EMI Music Distribution 2180
    1995 Celestial Harmonies 13125
    1995 Herald Records 166
    1995 Conifer 51521
    1994 Collegium Records / Colleguim 123
    1994 Conifer 16851
    1994 Astree 8524
    1994 Naxos 550827
    1994 American Choral Catalog 120
    1994 Delos 1031
    1994 Naxos 8 501201
    1993 Meridian Records 84163
    1993 ASV 6036
    1993 Arion 68003
    1993 Gimell 454999
    1991 EMI Music Distribution 64115
    1991 Hyperion 66439
    1991 Decca 430 092-2DWO
    1986 DG Archiv 415517
    1984 EMI Music Distribution 747065
    Teledisc 3
    Collins Records 70212
    K 617 7015
    Gimell 339
    RFCM Symphony Orchestra
    Jade 91003
    RFCM Symphony Orchestra
    Rca Red Seal 947602
    Carlton 1094
    In Classical Mood 12032
    Disc Makers UV1101
    Brilliant 99454
    Brilliant Classics 997973
    Octave, Les Productions 2968
    Brilliant Classics 93775
    London 5235
    Exultate 108
    BBC Music 292
    IMP Classics 806
    Amsterdam Classics 98109
    Decca 653702
    Naxos 8503096