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Law, culture, and Catholicism...up in smoke!

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Miserere mei Deus

A true story that I am reminded of every Holy Week is the curious way that a truly inspired piece of music was brought to the wider world. The piece that I am referring to is Allegri's Miserere. It is a setting of Psalm 50(51) and is possibly the most heart-wrenching, prayerful, and beautiful setting of a Penitential Psalm ever composed. The music was composed by Gregorio Allegri in the 17th century and was so highly favored by the Pope, that it was to be played only during Holy Week for the service of Tenebrae on Wednesday, and at the services on Good Friday (the Adoration of the Cross, Mass of the Presanctified, and all that). It was held in such high regard and considered such a treasure of the Church, that anyone who took the music outside of the Vatican was to do so under pain of excommunication.

Enter a young 12 year old Austrian. In 1770, this young man was traveling Europe with his father and came to Rome during Holy Week to attend to the sacred offices. One can imagine the mood in Rome as Holy Week 1770 (around April 11-16) was marked by cold, rainy weather and dark skies. Truly this mournful music during the solemnity that is Holy Week, coupled with nature responding to the commemoration of her Lord's passion and death, must have made an impression on the young 12 year old.

The historical record actually indicates that it did. This precocious young man--seemingly unaware of the penalty of excommunication--transcribed the Miserere. His father seemed both delighted as well as cautious as his words in a letter indicate: "Moreover, as it is one of the secrets of Rome, we do not wish to let it fall into other hands, ut non incurramus mediate vel immediate in censuram Ecclesiae."

Like the music, the Psalm itself is not the preserve of one, but the common gift and prayer of all. Let us make it our prayer during these Holy Days.