Miserere, the first word of the Vulgate text of Psalm 1 (Hebrew, li). Two other Psalms (lv and lvi) begin with the same word, and all three continue with mei, Deus (Have mercy on me, O God). In alphabetical indexes to the (Latin) Psalms they are interdistinguished by the fourth word, which in Ps. 1 is secundum; Ps. lv, quoniam; in Ps. lvi, miserere: so that Ps. 1 will appear as “Miserere. secundum”. So liturgically and musically preeminent is Ps. 1, however, that it is commonly referred to as the Miserere, without further qualification. The psalm has a title which is one of the best authenticated of all, as it is found in the Hebrew, the Greek, and the Latin, and which in the Vulgate reads: “In finem, Psalmus David, Cum venit ad eum Nathan propheta, quando intravit ad Bethsabee.” This title forms vv. 1 and 2 of the psalm, and refers to the sin of David (II Kings, xi) and to the reproaches and warnings of the prophet Nathan (II Kings, xii). Some commentators think that the last two verses of the psalm were added in the time of the Captivity. Delitzsch nevertheless considers them quite admissible in the mouth of David, arguing that the Hebrew word for “build” means not only “to rebuild”, but “to complete what is being built”, and that Solomon‘s wall (III Kings, iii, 1) can be regarded as a fulfilment of David’s prayer “that the walls of Jerusalem may be built up”. (Cf. the appended bibliography, which gives the suffrages of some recent Catholic commentators to the traditional ascription, in addition to the opinions of several of the more recent non-Catholic commentators.)
The Miserere has a most prominent place in the Divine Office and in various ceremonies. It is the first psalm at Lauds in all the ferial (weekday) Offices throughout the year, outside of Paschal Time, and in the Sunday Offices from Septuagesima to Palm Sunday inclusive. It holds the same place in the Office of the Dead. It is the psalm chosen for the preces feriales at Vespers for all the weekdays in Lent with the exception of the triduum of Holy Week, for those in Advent, for the ember-days except those of the Pentecostal season, and for all vigils, except those of Christmas, Epiphany, the Ascension, and Pentecost. In addition it is said just before the oratio, or prayer, in all the Canonical Hours in the triduum of Holy Week, except the Vespers and Compline of Holy Saturday. As it is also the fourth in order of the seven penitential Psalms (q.v.), its times of recitation will be governed by the appropriate rubric in the Breviary. It (or, as alternative, Ps. cxvi, “Laudate omnes”) is said daily in the prayers after dinner (post prandium), except on days when only one meal is taken (in which case the prayers are those styled post caenam, “after supper”) and also except the times from Christmas to the Octave of the Epiphany, from Holy Saturday until Low Sunday exclusively, and from Ascension Thursday to the Octave of Pentecost exclusively. It is very prominent in the ceremony of the Asperges (q.v.), during which the choir sings the antiphon “Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo”, etc. (i.e. Ps. 1, verse 8; Vulg., 9), then the verse “Miserere mei, Deus”, etc. (i.e. Ps. 1, 1; Vulg., 3), then the Gloria Patri, and finally the antiphon “Asperges me”, the celebrant meanwhile reciting, either alone or alternately with the sacred ministers, the entire Miserere. On Passion and Palm Sundays the Gloria Patri is omitted, and during Paschal Time the antiphon and psalm are “Vidi aquam” and “Confitemini” (Ps. cxvii) respectively.
The Miserere is found in many other ceremonial functions; at the Burial of the Dead, with the antiphon “Exultabunt Domino ossa humiliata”, taken from the 9th (Vulg., 10th) verse of the psalm; at the episcopal visitation of parishes; the blessing of a bell; the consecration of an altar-stone; the laying of the cornerstone of a church; the blessing of a church, of a cemetery, of a house, of congregations, and fields; the reconciliation of a profaned church (whether consecrated or merely blessed) or of a profaned cemetery. It is especially prominent in the consecration of a church, when it is first said like other psalms, and afterwards in a more solemn manner, with the antiphon “Asperges” repeated after each group of three verses, during the sprinkling of the altars with holy water. It is said by the penitent who is to be absolved from excommunication (in foro externo), and by the absolving priest in the case of a deceased excommunicate who had given some sign of contrition before death, the ceremony entitling to ecclesiastical burial. At the Visitation of the Sick the priest may say the Miserere or any other of the first three penitential psalms. While carrying the Blessed Sacrament to the sick, the priest is to say the Miserere (“which is the best suited for obtaining divine mercy for the sick”—de Herdt, “Praxis”) and other psalms and prayers. In monasteries it is said during the customary “discipline”. It figured prominently in the ancient ceremony of the Reconciliation of Penitents on Maundy Thursday, both as one of the seven penitential psalms recited by the bishop in the sanctuary, and as one of the three psalms commencing with Miserere during the prostration of clergy and laity (including the penitents). For an interesting description of this ancient function, cf. the volume entitled “Passiontide and Holy Week“, of Gueranger’s “Liturgical Year.”
In some Jewish rituals the Miserere is recited on the Day of Atonement. It is also found in the Anglican Commination Service. In a fragmentary form it is also prominent, in the selection of some of its most 23searching verses, for the preces of Prime in the Divine Office; in the verse “Domine labia mea aperies”, etc., with which the Office commonly opens at Matins and Prime; in the use of the antiphon “Asperges“, and the verse “Miserere” in the Communion of the Sick, and of the antiphon alone at Extreme Unction (de Herdt, “Praxis”); in the selection of various verses for use as antiphons in the Office, and for an Offertory, a Communion, and an Alleluiaverse at Mass. The partial use made of it at Mass and Office has been minutely detailed in Bishop Marbach’s exceedingly elaborate work, “Carmina Scripturarum” (Strasburg, 1907), 134-36.
As remarked above, the Miserere is not only the first psalm at Lauds in the ferial Office, but is also repeated just before the oratio at the end of Lauds in the triduum of Holy Week. The thought of giving to this second Miserere a musical treatment more elaborate than the ordinary plainsong used for the psalms in general, and of making it serve as a climax to the dramatic ceremonial of the Tenebrae, is probably due to Leo X. In 1514 the Miserere was sung to a falsobordone. The oldest example extant is that of Costanzo Festa (1517), which alternated verses in plainsong with verses in falsibordoni of four and five voices. This interestingly contrasted setting or method of treatment formed the type for imitation ever since.
The musical settings of the Miserere are very many. Three of them (Baini’s on Wednesday, Bai’s on Thursday, and Allegri’s on Friday afternoons) are especially famous because of their yearly repetition in the pope’s chapel during the Tenebrae. Among the numerous estimates recorded by musicians and travellers on these three settings, mention may be made of Mendelssohn’s, Cardinal Wiseman’s, Madame de Stael’s (in “Corinne”), Mr. Rockstro’s (in Grove, Dictionary of Music), and especially of the young Mozart’s sincerest tribute in the famous copy of it made by him at one hearing of Allegri’s Miserere (with corrections made at a subsequent hearing). In the second of his “Four Lectures on the Offices and Ceremonies of Holy Week“, Cardinal Wiseman gives a comparative estimate of these settings and, in accord with all who have heard them, awards the palm of supremacy to Allegri’s. His description is glowing and vivid; but that of Mr. Rockstro is equally appreciative and musically more precise and detailed in respect of Allegri’s Miserere, of which he gives many illustrations, and which he defends against certain criticisms. (Cf. in the same dictionary articles on Bai, Baini.)
H. T. HENRY