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Psalm 51

posted Mar 26, 2015, 7:30 PM by Steven Vaughan   [ updated Jul 2, 2015, 3:08 PM ]
For the leader. A psalm of David,
when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

Have mercy on me, God, in accord with your merciful love; in your abundant compassion blot out my transgressions.
Thoroughly wash away my guilt; and from my sin cleanse me.
For I know my transgressions; my sin is always before me.
Against you, you alone have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your eyes so that you are just in your word, and without reproach in your judgment.
Behold, I was born in guilt, in sin my mother conceived me.
Behold, you desire true sincerity; and secretly you teach me wisdom.
Cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
You will let me hear gladness and joy; the bones you have crushed will rejoice.

Turn away your face from my sins; blot out all my iniquities.
A clean heart create for me, God; renew within me a steadfast spirit.
Do not drive me from before your face, nor take from me your holy spirit.
Restore to me the gladness of your salvation; uphold me with a willing spirit.
I will teach the wicked your ways, that sinners may return to you.
Rescue me from violent bloodshed, God, my saving God, and my tongue will sing joyfully of your justice.
Lord, you will open my lips; and my mouth will proclaim your praise.
For you do not desire sacrifice or I would give it; a burnt offering you would not accept.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn. 

Treat Zion kindly according to your good will; build up the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will desire the sacrifices of the just, burnt offering and whole offerings; then they will offer up young bulls on your altar.
Traditionally referred to as the Miserere, (its first word in Latin) Psalm 51 is the most famous of the seven Penitential Psalms, praying for the removal of the personal and social disorders that sin has brought. St. John Paul II called it “the hymn of sin and pardon, a profound meditation on guilt and grace.”

The original psalm was authored by David, called to repentance by the severe words of the prophet Nathan, who rebuked him for his adultery with Bathsheba and for having had her husband Uriah killed. However, in later centuries it was expanded when the Jewish people returned from exile in Babylon.

After being chanted for centuries, the earliest known choral version dates from the 1480s by composer Johannes Martini. In the 16th century Orlande de Lassus writes an elaborate setting as part of his Penitential Psalms, and Palestrina, Gabrieli, Josquin des Prez and Bach all produce their own settings.

In the 1630s, Gregorio Allegri wrote a setting in 10-part harmony for exclusive use in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week. Pope Urban VIII forbade anyone to transcribe the music or perform it elsewhere; doing so was punishable by excommunication. According to family letters, fourteen-year-old Mozart visits Rome in 1770, and hears it on Holy Wednesday. Later that night, he writes out the entire score from memory, returning to hear it again on Good Friday to make minor corrections. A British music historian obtains it, takes it to London and by 1771 publishes it. So Pope Clement XIV summons Mozart back to Rome. Only instead of excommunicating the fifteen-year-old, he lifts the ban and praises Mozart for his feat of musical genius!