This is the first bitesize post of a series of twenty-six. The series will be an A to Z for two reasons. The first reason is that I am joining the #AtoZChallenge which is an event in which participants blog their way through April in twenty-six acrostic posts. The second reason is that our topic, Psalm 51, though not itself an acrostic poem, is part of the Psalter in which nine of the 150 psalms are acrostics.
Why is Psalm 51 the subject of these 26 posts? The primary reasons are to showcase this truly amazing psalm, and to celebrate what can only be termed its incredible legacy. This psalm has been, with good reason, named The Psalm of Psalms by some. The reader will need to decide whether this and other superlatives we will encounter along the way are just hyperbole. I hope that many might agree with me that these are well deserved appellations.
There were other ways in which this project on Psalm 51 could have started. For example, the letter A could have been for Augustine, the North African theologian from Hippo, but I have only recently explored Augustine and his sermon on Psalm 51.
Gregorio Allegri (c.1582–1562) was both a Roman Catholic priest and an Italian composer. His most famous work today is his musical setting of the Latin text of Psalm 51. It is known by the shorthand name of Miserere because in Latin this is the first word of Psalm 51. Miserere means mercy in English. The full liturgical title of Psalm 51 and Allegri’s work is Miserere mei, Deus, which means ‘Have mercy on me, O God’. Psalm 51 was so famous for many centuries that the single word, Miserere, would bring it to mind in all sorts of cultural and religious settings.
Allegri’s choral Miserere is the stuff of legend—fitting for a post with so many superlative claims for Psalm 51. Allegri composed his Miserere for use in what are known as Tenebrae services in Holy Week. When Pope Urban VIII heard the work, he was impressed and wanted to preserve Allegri’s work for the Vatican’s use. So, he decreed that it should only be sung in the Sistine Chapel and only at the close of Holy Week. Its beauty would have been all the more startling in this context as it was (and indeed still is) performed by two choirs as a rich polyphonic work, and it followed services in which only plain chant was used. Here is a link to an excellent version of it, sung by VOCES8:
Allegri’s original work evolved after its ‘escape’ from the Sistine Chapel. The full story of its escape, courtesy of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart around 1770, can be found in a BBCFOUR documentary.
So far, Psalm 51 is living up to our earlier superlatives, at least in terms of a remarkable musical legacy—I hope you agree that Allegri’s work is as hauntingly beautiful as its story is remarkable.