Sunday, July 19, 2009

Miserere: A Sinner’s Prayer Set to Contemporary Music

The sinner’s prayer is as old as Christianity itself. It can be as simple as the lines in the parable told by Jesus in the 18th chapter of Luke, where He commended a despised tax collector for uttering the simple words: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” A variation of the prayer has been repeated since the dawn of the Church every Sunday in liturgical masses, be they in Latin or in the vernacular:

If spoken in sincerity from the heart, such a prayer is indeed salvific. Of course, the danger of its repetition Sunday after Sunday is that it easily becomes formulaic and loses its meaning, even though the “Miserere”, as this portion of the liturgy has come to be known, is unsurpassed in its simplicity, beauty and truth.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.

And yet the prayer has a way of taking on a life of its own, even breaking forth into contemporary pop culture and music, which otherwise seldom makes room for the sacred. An example is the song Miserere, composed by Italian artist Zucchero Fornaciari (known simply as “Zucchero”), with alternate English lyrics written by U2’s Bono.

Zucchero‘s lyrics are the prayer of a man who enjoys life and everything this world has to offer. He is not necessarily the profligate and despised sinner symbolized in Jesus’ parable (though he could be), but he nevertheless realizes that something fundamental is missing in his life. He realizes that life apart from God is empty and meaningless, so he cries out for mercy. The music and arrangements of the song are a stroke of genius: It is sung as a duet between a blues singer (reflecting the anguish of a man crying out for mercy) and an operatic tenor (lending the song a classical flavor to reflect the timelessness of a prayer for God’s mercy.)

Zucchero would have no problem singing the part of the bluesman, but where could he find a tenor? His first thought was to ask Luciano Pavarotti, but he would need to at least produce a demo tape to give the Italian maestro an idea of what he had in mind. To sing the part of tenor on the demo, he turned to a then obscure piano bar singer by the name of Andrea Bocelli. After listening to the demo, Pavarotti reportedly told Zucchero “"Thank you for writing such a wonderful song. Yet you do not need me to sing it - let Andrea sing Miserere with you, for there is no one finer." [i]

In case you haven’t heard this beautiful song, I have included a Youtube video of a performance by Pavarotti, Bocelli and Zucchero. I have also reproduced the Italian lyrics by Zucchero, along with my version of a translation. It is not as literal and faithful as the many excellent translations available elsewhere, as I have taken a few liberties in an attempt to capture the heart cry of the prayer.


By Zucchero Fornaciari

Miserere, miserere,
     Lord, have mercy, Lord, have mercy.
miserere, misero me,
     Lord, have mercy on miserable me.
però brindo alla vita!
     Yet I keep lifting my glass to life!

Ma che mistero, è la mia vita, che mistero!
     But what a mystery is my life, what a mystery!
Sono un peccatore dell'anno ottantamila, un menzognero!
     I’ve been a sinner forever, a deceiver!
Ma dove sono e cosa faccio, come vivo?
     But where am I? What am I doing? How am I living?
Vivo nell'anima del mondo, perso nel vivere profondo!
     I live in the soul of the world, deeply lost in living life!

Miserere, misero me, però brindo alla vita!
     Lord, have mercy on miserable me, yet I keep lifting my glass to life!

Io sono il santo che ti ha tradito quando eri solo
     I am the saint who betrayed You, when You were alone.
e vivo altrove e osservo il mondo dal cielo,
     I live far off, and I observe the world from the skies
e vedo il mare e le foreste, vedo me che...
     And I see the sea and the forests, and I see me who...
Vivo nell'anima del mondo, perso nel vivere profondo!
     …lives in the soul of the world, deeply lost in living life!

Miserere, misero me, però brindo alla vita!
     Lord have mercy on miserable me, yet I keep lifting my glass to life.

Se c'è una notte buia abbastanza da nascondermi, nascondermi,
     If there is a night dark enough to hide me, to hide me.
se c'è una luce, una speranza, sole magnifico che splendi dentro me
     If there is a light, a hope, a magnificent sun shining within me
dammi la gioia di vivere che ancora non c'è!
     Oh give me that joy to live, that I still can’t quite find
Miserere, miserere,
     Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy
quella gioia di vivere che forse ancora non c'è.
     Oh that joy to live, that... perhaps… I still can’t quite find.

© 1992 PolyGram Italia Srl / Zucchero & Fornaciari Music Srl[ii]

[ii] Ibid.

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