Miserere mei, Deus (Have mercy on me, O God) is Italian composer Gregorio Allegri’s setting of Psalm 51. Most likely composed during the 1630s, it was intended for an exclusive performance at pre-Easter Tenebrae services in the Sistine Chapel. It was written for 2 choirs (5 & 4 voices) singing alternatively before ending in 9-part polyphony.
Since the Renaissance-era vocal ornamentations as practiced in the Sistine Chapel were unknown outside the Vatican, and the composition was only performed in the Sistine Chapel (& only over a few days a year) the origins of the piece are associated with secrecy. Nonetheless, by 1735 there were documented performances in London. This is more recent:
This hauntingly beautiful version of Miserere mei, Deus was recorded in St. Bartholomew the Great, London, in 2018 by Tenebrae. Tenebrae Choir was founded by Nigel Short and Barbara Pollock in London in 2001. It is directed by Nigel Short and it’s first performance in 2001 was of Short’s The Dream of Herod. The next year, Tenebrae commissioned Mother and Child, based on a poem by Brian Keeble, from John Tavener. The choir performed the piece and released a recording of it.
In 2006, the choir toured churches on Spain’s Camino pilgrimage route, performing another contemporary classical composition, Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles. In the same year, the choir started collaborating with the London Symphony Orchestra. Here is the choir venturing into more popular music than usual in the title scene of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005). Broadway-style and lively, the song, written by Joby Talbot, Christopher Austin, and Garth Jennings, is Thanks for All the Fish.
Arnold Sherrill asks: “Can you imagine how hard it was for them to sing this with a straight face after seeing the lyrics? You can almost hear them teetering on the edge of just losing it because it was actually that funny.” Sherrill makes a good point. For some movie goers, such as Duneedon, the opening sequence of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was one of the best parts of the movie, and one of the best movie introductions of the year.
During the pandemic, Tenebrae worked with The Self-Isolation Choir on Thomas Tallis’s High-Renaissance-work Spem in Alium. Choir members rehearsed online before they were asked to submit their individual contributions so they could be edited together for a broadcast in October 2021.
In November 2021, Tenebrae embarked on a tour in the US. Their long-time conductor Nigel Short was unable to accompany the choir as he had been diagnosed with bowel cancer. In a 23 March post linked on the Tenebrae webpage, Short gave an update on his cancer: it was confined to one tumor which was successfully excised in an operation. With regard to the US tour, Short commented: “It made me realise just how much I love working with the singers, and how lucky I am to make music with them in so many spectacular settings”.
Speaking of spectacular settings, St. Bartholomew the Great, London, the setting for the video of Miserere mei, Deus, has a fascinating history. It is a Medieval Church founded by Rahere, an Augustinian Priest in 1123. Rahere had a dream wherein a winged beast conveyed a message from God instructing him to build a church in Smithfield, London. Rahere ventured to London, only to discover that Smithfield was Royal property. Rahere told Henry I of his vision and was given permission to build. Rahere used servants and child labourers to gather suitable stones from across London. Over the years, the church has been associated with miraculous healing.
Besides its secret origins, Miserere mei, Deus has an interesting story attached to it. According to Leopold Mozart, in a letter to his wife written on 14 April 1770, it is the piece that his 14-year-old son, Wolfgang Amadeus, heard once then wrote down from memory later that day.
The name Tenebrae comes from a service performed on the three days before Easter. Miserere mei, Deus was originally performed as part of Tenebrae in the Sistine Chapel. The Independent has asked: “… is there any finer chamber choir in Britain today than Nigel Short’s outfit, Tenebrae?” On the strength of the two videos linked in this article, one would be hard-pressed to see this as anything but a rhetorical question. If you would like to see more from Tenebrae, you can subscribe to their YouTube channel or follow them on Facebook. You can also visit their official website for more information.