The Miserere is a short story by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer. The story guides us through a world of discordant and gloomy notes with a symphony that seems to come straight from a spectral plane.
The Miserere – Plot
The narrator and protagonist of the events discovers, in a monastery, a weird sheet of music. It seems to be a certain Miserere, a famous song of penitence of King David. However, the weird annotations inside it spark his curiosity, and so he ends up uncovering the story behind it.
The Miserere is a song attributed to King David that corresponds to Psalm 50 (or 51 depending on the source). According to tradition, the psalm was sung after his adultery with Bathsheba to ask for forgiveness from God for his misconduct. In actuality, however, the events mentioned in the text would point to a later date of creation.
When it comes to the lyrics, what comes across is a song of extreme contrition that highlights, at the same time, the humility of the sinner.
Miserère mei, Deus, secùndum magnam misericòrdiam tuam.
Et secùndum multitùdinem miseratiònum tuàrum, dele iniquitàtem meam.
Have mercy upon me, God, through your magnificent compassion.
And through your immense piety for my sins.
It’s immediately obvious how the first word is also the one to give a name to the Psalm and it’s not difficult to realise that it represents a main theme for the entire song.
It’s the extreme humility shown by the sinner that makes it one of the most important texts of the Christian tradition.
The gloomy song of the dead
The musician whose legend is told to our protagonist and narrator wishes to ask for forgiveness for his sins by composing a Miserere, but not just any one Miserere. The specific one in the story will have to so deeply grasp the meaning of the song as to overcome any other that has been composed up to that moment. And when he finds out about the legend of the monks that every year come back from the dead to sing the song, he can’t help but run to listen to the music with his own ears.
The song, in fact, turns out to be so deep, so heart-wrenching, so agonising that it could never be compared to any other written before it. The suffering of those souls is palpable, almost solid enough to be touched. It’s as if the song was capable of shaking the earth and sky and everything in between.
Art and obsession
One of the more common themes of the union between art and the supernatural is that of the obsession of the artist for a specific work or the grasp towards the reach of such an idea of perfection that it ends up driving the artist to the edge of madness. And in many cases, we might add, to even dive into it head-first.
It’s, therefore, not a surprise that our composer will have to face his own art and that music that goes much beyond what a human being should be able to conceive and imagine, to the point of having to create new words to describe it that go back to that condition of the suffering of those souls that are, in many ways, eternally damned.