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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

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Tuesday Evening Melody: Allegri’s “Miserere Mei, Deus”

by Lisa Moore, guest contributor

This song affirms that humans create beauty. When that woman’s voice rises above the rest and spirals around, it is pure and intoxicating.

Miserere Mei was written by Italian composer Gregorio Allegri in the late 1630s. As legend has it, this piece of music was protected from being transcribed or played outside of the Sistine Chapel for the Tenebrae (“darkness” or “shadows” in Latin) service. Doing so was punishable by excommunication.

The story goes that, after more than a century, young Mozart heard the work in 1770 and rewrote it from memory when he returned home. His transcription ended up in the hands of an Englishman who published it in 1771. Rather than being excommunicated, Mozart was called to Rome and praised by the pope for his musical genius. The ban was lifted, and now it is one of the most common works to be performed by a cappella choirs.

Why would this song ever have been banned in the first place? Because it was so very beautiful. Perhaps people would hear this music and have a spiritual experience. That experience, of course, could then be had anywhere they heard that music and open a personal pathway to a relationship with God. The Church wanted to be sure that that type of communication could only occur with its guidance and control. There are other examples of music being avoided because of the belief that it insinuated evil, like the tritone.

Other composers also transcribed it, and there is quite the dispute about who got it right and whose version is the best. I first heard a recording by the Dale Warland Singers, so I think I’m stuck with my first love, but there are many recordings — including the gorgeous version above performed by The Sixteen — both with adult and children’s choirs.

As interesting as all of this is, I’m not trying to make any big statement. I just want to share this amazing music that deeply touches my soul, no matter what sort of mood I am in.


Lisa MooreLisa Moore is a medical student at Loyola University in Chicago. She attempts to maintain her identity as more than somebody who studies through yoga, creative cooking, reading, and writing.

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