111009 Allegri Miserere

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Miserere mei, Deus Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652) Allegris Miserere is a setting of Psalm 51, and was composed for the office of Tenebrae during Holy Week at the Sistine Chapel. Vatican manuscripts date the work from around 16381, during which time Allegri was a singer in the Chapel of Pope Urban VIII. The piece was performed regularly and exclusively in the Sistine Chapel during the evening services of Holy Week, where it was protected as a masterpiece of the papal choir. It acquired a reputation that seems surprising for a piece that is relatively simple in its form and harmonic construction. Legend had it that the subsequent pope, Innocent X, was so impressed with the piece that he prohibited its performance or distribution outside of the Sistine chapel, by pain of excommunication. While this threat remains unsubstantiated, both the English music historian, Charles Burney 2, and Leopold Mozart 3 made reference to the ban, and the punishment for breaking it, in their writings. Today, Allegris Miserere is one of the most popular pieces of late Renaissance choral music, and continues to be performed regularly as part of the Holy Week liturgy in churches with the choral resources to perform it successfully. However, the form in which it is now most frequently performed bears little resemblance to that written by Allegri, due to the combined effects of transcription errors and the lost ornamentation techniques of the papal choir. Nonetheless, this modern re-working of the piece is widely popular today, despite recent efforts to reconstruct the earlier work in recordings by noted choral scholars.4

1 2

Ben Byram-Wigeld, An Unknown Quantity, The Musical Times, 138 no. 1854 (Aug 1997): 12

Charles Burney, The present state of music in France and Italy (London: Becket & Co, 1773): 287-8. Google e-book.3

Letter to his wife, April 14, 1770, quoted in Emily Anderson, ed., The Letters of Mozart & his Family (London: Macmillian, 1938), 1:1874

Examples of recordings based on historical research and contemporary performance practice include Allegri: Miserere, A Sei Voci, dir. Bernard Fabre-Garrus (nave/Astre E8909, 1994), and Pachelbels Canon & Other Baroque Favourites, Taverner Consort Choir, dir. Andrew Parrott (EMI Classics 0724348204325, 2005)

Liturgical Context

The service of Tenebrae (lit. darkness) was one of the most dramatic and theatrical liturgical celebrations in the Roman Catholic church. Possibly conceived as a memorial rite for Christ, it consists of the combined Offices of Matins and Lauds, and was celebrated on the last three days of Holy Week. The service was originally celebrated after midnight, but in the Middle Ages, the celebration was moved to the proceeding evening. What provided the drama was the gradual extinguishing of candles, one after each of fifteen psalms. As the evening light disappeared, and the candles were extinguished one by one, the church was brought into darkness, with the exception of a single remaining candle signifying Christ. This last candle was hidden beneath the altar, signifying the days in the tomb, and the service continued in darkness. It was in this atmosphere that the final psalm, the Miserere was sung. The service must have been particularly effective in the Sistine chapel, where masterpieces of art adorn the walls and ceilings. The acoustics in the chapel are very reverberant, and with the choir hidden behind the original marble screen, the voices must have seemed to have been coming from another world. At the time of Allegris composition, the upper voices would have been castrati, whose strange, but reportedly very beautiful tone, would have added to the other-worldly experience. The nineteenth century French writer, Stendhal, gives a rather colourful account of hearing the Miserere in the chapel: The Miserere, which is performed in the Sistine only on two occasions during Holy Week, and which produces so overwhelming an impression upon newcomers, was composed some two centuries ago by Gregorio Allegri [...]. As the first notes begin to fill the Chapel, Pope and Cardinals prostrate themselves before the altar; the gleam from the candles falls upon

that Last Judgement which Michelangelo painted in fresco on the wall which serves as reredos to the altar.. As the Miserere proceeds, the candles are extinguished one by one; and the faces of the countless Damned, portrayed with such terrifying violence by Michelangelo, grow but the more awesome in the half-light shed by the pale flicker of the last candles that still retain their flame. As the Miserere moves towards its final close, the choirmaster, who is conducting, imperceptibly decreases the tempo; the choristers let their voices die away, the harmonies are gradually extinguished; and the Sinner, confounded in the presence of God in all His majesty, prostrate before His high Throne, seems to await in silence the coming of the Voice that is to judge him. 5

After the singing of the Miserere, the ceremony concluded with a sudden, loud noise, intended to represent an earthquake - nature in turmoil at the death of Christ. The candle which was hidden from view was placed at the top of the hearse, signifying the Resurrection. The congregation then departed in silence.

Historical Context and form of the Miserere

One of the effects of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) was the adoption of a simpler, less contrapuntal style, where the sacred texts could be more clearly heard. Instruments were to be avoided, unless providing a discreet accompaniment. This was particularly true of the Sistine chapel, which was the chapel of the Popes official residence. Jean Lionnet 6 explains that, as the pope represented Christ on earth, the papal choir was seen as representing the angelic choir around Gods throne. As there are no biblical references to instruments used by the angels (with the exception of the sounding of the trumpets on the last day), the papal choir was obliged to refrain from using them.


Stendhal, Life of Mozart, in Lives of Haydn, Mozart and Metastasio, tr., intr., and ed. by Richard N. Coe (London: Calder & Boyars, 1972), 174-175, quoted in Richard Boursy, The Mystique of the Sistine Chapel Choir in the Romantic Era, The Journal of Musicology, 11 no. 3 (Summer, 1993): 277-3296

Jean Lionnet, Performance practice in the Papal Chapel during the 17th Century, Early Music, 15 no. 1 (Feb., 1987), 5

Thus, when Allegri entered the Sistine Chapel choir as an alto in 1629, the music the choir was singing would have been entirely a capella, and in the refined, elegant style which allowed for clarity of text without sacrificing a rich harmonic language. Much of Allegris work shows Palestrinas influence. While his instrumental compositions were modern, embracing the Baroque style, his work for the Sistine chapel was notably more restrained. Little of his other work is remembered or performed today. He was not the first composer to set the Miserere in the particular falsobordone style that characterizes the 1638 composition. Vatican manuscripts indicate that the tradition of setting Psalm 51 in a falsobordone style alternating with plainchant may have begun as early as 15147 . Allegri would almost certainly have been aware of this when he wrote the piece. Psalm 51 is the best-known of the seven penitential psalms. It is Davids supplication after committing adultery with Bathsheba, and deals with the misery of sin and the hope of reconciliation. Allegri treats each verse separately, using two choirs, spacially separated, and three different textures. The first verse is set for the five voiced choir (Choir I) in two musical phrases, each beginning with a recitation on a chord that allows for declamation of verses of different lengths, proceeding with simple but compelling panconsonant harmonies, and ending on a dominant chord. A plainchant verse, sung by the tenors and basses of the choir, is followed by a verse for four-part choir (Choir II), structured in two phrases like the five-voiced verse, but ending more conclusively on the tonic major chord. The Choir II verse is also followed by a verse of plainchant. Using the above pattern, Allegri precedes through the next 15 verses of the psalm. The final verse Tunc acceptabis begins with Choir I alone, but the second phrase requires two choirs to join together to complete the psalm.


The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., s.v. Miserere

In these details, the piece has essentially survived intact, but in almost all other aspects the version performed today is very different. Todays version includes a soaring top C in the treble line, which is nowhere to be seen in Allegris original version. While Allegris original set Choir I for SATTB, today the Miserere is sung with a single tenor part, one of the original voices being transposed up and allocated to the top Soprano voice. Allegris uppermost line has been almost completely obscured in the harmony and more lavish embellishments of todays version. Ben Byram-Wigfield, in his article An unknown quantity8 attempts to decipher the different versions and to trace the history of the piece from its original composition to the form in which it it now performed.

Early sources of the work

Manuscripts dated around 1638, the time of the composition, still survive in the Vatican archive. These are manuscripts MSS 205 and 206, which contain the Choir I and Choir II settings respectively. It is here that we see Allegris setting of an SATTB five-voiced choir, and four voiced SSAB choir. The first verse of the psalm as reflected by MS 205 is shown over:


Byram-Wigeld, An Unknown Quantity, 12-21

The Choir II setting is the most changed today, and now includes the top C and a changed bass line in the second phrase. Here is the original as translat