Lent causes us to talk about things we often avoid: about sin, about human nature in its falseness and fallenness, about the hope of redemption and the path towards resurrection. The Church gives us both the words and the actions for this time, pleading (as we said on Ash Wednesday) ‘Good Lord, deliver us’ in the Litany and imprinting on our foreheads the ashen mark of the cross. In the one event, we both recognise and despair of ourselves and are claimed back from the brink through the only sign in which we can conquer.
At the heart of that Ash Wednesday Liturgy are the deeply resonant words of Psalm 51: ‘Have mercy upon me, God, in your kindness’. So we recognise the poverty of our sin and the richness of God’s grace. Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere, well-known and well-loved, works the text of this psalm into an adorned setting that sets in motion this period of penitence and fasting.
Allegri’s original setting was somewhat more restrained than the one with which we are most familiar, with its obligatory soprano line soaring a multiplicity of times to a top C above the other voices, and few pieces of music in the Western Canon have such a contested or mythologically-advanced history. Traditionally sung during the Holy Week services in the Sistine Chapel until the 1870s, the ornaments (specifically those famous high notes) that were used to decorate the composer’s original composition were never written down. Stories abound of those who visited the Chapel in an attempt to scribble down the correct version, including one particularly famous visit by Mozart. Today, the version with which we are most familiar is a 1970s edition by Dr George Guest who was then Director of Music at St John’s College, Cambridge. It is extraordinary to think that this piece, which has become for many an almost essential part of their approach to the Lenten season, is part of an English tradition dating back only forty years. A wise friend of mine would oft say, ‘tradition is the last haven of the unimaginative’, but I think we can be glad of this addition to our liturgical life. You may listen to it hear in a superlative recording by Tenebrae: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=H3v9unphfi0
For our hymn this week, the beautiful Office Hymn for Lent: O kind Creator, bow thine ear. We could all pray this week the words of its second verse:
Our hearts are open, Lord, to Thee;
Thou knowest our infirmity;
Pour out on all who seek Thy face
Abundance of Thy pardoning grace
You may listen to it hear, sung by the choir of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=hrc5tBEtuSg