The first word of the Vulgate text of Psalm 50. Two other Psalms (55 and 56) 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 inter-distinguished by the fourth word, which in Psalm 50 is secundum, Psalm 55, quoniam, in Psalm 56, miserere: so that Psalm 50 will appear as "Miserere . . . secundum". So liturgically and musically pre-eminent is Psalm 50, 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 (2 Samuel 11) and to the reproaches and warnings of the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 12). 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 for "build" means not only "to rebuild", but "to complete what is being built", and that Solomon's wall (1 Kings 3:1) 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 (week-day) 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, its times of recitation will be governed by the appropriate rubric in the Breviary. It (or, as alternative, Psalm 116, "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, during which the choir sings the antiphon "Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo", etc. (i.e. Psalm 1:8; Vulgate 1:9), then the verse "Miserere mei, Deus", etc. (i.e. Psalm 1:1; Vulgate 1:3), 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 (Vulgate, 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 corner-stone 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 Guéranger'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 searching 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 Alleluia-verse 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 plain-song used for the psalms in general, and of making it serve as a climax to the dramatic ceremonial of the Tenebræ, 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 plain-song 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 Tenebræ. 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.)
M'SWINEY, Translation of the Psalms and Canticles with Commentary (St. Louis, 1901), 186-90, gives a bi-columnar translation from the Vulgate and the Hebrew Massoretic text, 186-190: "With the exception of the two last verses, probably added to the Psalm during the Babylonian captivity, there is no valid reason for assigning this Psalm to a poet of a later age, who undertook to set forth the thoughts and emotions of David, on the occasion mentioned in the title". D'EYRAGUES, Les Psaumes traduits de l'hebreu (Paris, 1904), 146-51, ascribes it to David: "Verses 20-21 were doubtless added after the return from captivity in the time of Esdras when he again raised the walls of the temple. The congregation sing the verses." VIGOUROUX praises the work as one of irreproachable learning.
Against the Davidic authorship: CHEYNE, The Book of Psalms (New York, 1892), 144-149, BRIGGS, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Psalms (New York, 1907), II, 3-12: "Ps. 51 is a penitential prayer of the congregation in the time of Nehemiah."
Neutral: KIRKPATRICK, The Book of Psalms (Cambridge, 1901), bks. II, III. 284-95, briefly disposes of some objections to the Davidic authorship and allows weighs to others: LESETRE, Le Livre de Psaumes (Paris, 1883). a very extended commentary; KENRICK, The Psalms, etc. (Baltimore, 1861), very condensed, but satisfactory; WOLTER, Psallite Sapienter (Psallieret weise) (Freiburg im Br, 1905), II, 294-331, an extensive account of the mystical and liturgical uses of the Miserere.
Metrical translations into English: BAGSHAWE, The Psalms and Canticles in English Verse (St. Louis, 1903), proposes the use of metrical versions of the Psalms by Catholics and gives (106) his metrical version of Ps. 1; MILBOURNE, The Psalms of David in English Metre (London, 1698), 105-08, gives two translations into English verse; The Psalter, a revised Ed. of the Scottish Metrical Version of the Psalms set to suitable music (Dublin, 1880), 68.
Latin metrical versions: GEORGII BUCHANANI SCOTTI, Paraphrasis Psalmorum Davidis Poetica (Edinburgh, 1737), 161-63, a version in nineteen Sapphic stanzas; Poetarum Scotorum Musae Sacrae (Edinburgh, 1739), 44 a version into thirty-nine elegiac couplets.
MATHESON, The Psalmist and the Scientist (New York, 1894), 253-89, takes Ps. 1 to represent "the Psalmist's view of sin" as being "infranatural", "a life of disorder existing in the midst of order". TAYLOR, David, King of Israel (New York, 1894), 272-73, argues for the sincerity of the Psalmist and includes the anecdote of Voltaire's attempt to parody the Miserere; SCHULTE, Consecranda, Benedicenda (New York, 1907), two volumes giving in English all the ceremonial and rubrical details of many functions in which the Miserere is used; SINGENBERGER, Guide to Catholic Church Music (St. Francis, Wis., 1905), gives (202) author, voices, and grade of twenty-four settings for Burials of the Dead, and (200-01) of twenty-eight settings for Lauds of Holy Week.
APA citation. (1911). Miserere. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10352c.htm
MLA citation. "Miserere." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10352c.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Vernon Bremberg. Dedicated to the Cloistered Dominican nuns of the Monastery of the Infant Jesus, Lufkin, Texas.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is feedback732 at newadvent.org. (To help fight spam, this address might change occasionally.) Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.