Monday Music: Miserere by Gregorio Allegri

In my last two Monday Music features, I’ve talked about composers and pieces that are reasonably well known. Today’s feature, a setting of the Miserere mei Deus text, comes from a composer that is not as well known: Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652). In preparing for this post, I searched through all of the music history books I’ve kept over the years (thought I might have another batch lurking in a dark corner of my basement); only one of them mentions Allegri. And that mention is a passing reference only, in the context of talking about one of young Mozart’s trips to Italy. The story goes that Mozart was able to write out Allegri’s Miserere from memory, after only hearing it once.

In this case, the Internet proved more helpful. Allegri trained as a child chorister, and went on to be a priest, singer, and composer at Fermo. In 1629, Allegri was awarded a place in the Papal Choir of Pope Urban VIII.[1][2] Finally, I came across a page by musicologist Ben Byram-Wigfield devoted to the Miserere. Byram-Wigfield’s pages are focused primarily on the manuscript, and the debate over how the version we hear performed today – which is the one I’m talking about here – is noticeably different than the original manuscript by Allegri. Byram-Wigfield writes:

The received version [The ‘Top C’ Version], as it is widely held today, is a mix of [Charles] Burney’s first choir with a bizarre second choir, congealed into life in the first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music & Musicians in 1880. In 1932, Robert Haas took Burney’s first choir and final verse, adding W.S. Rockstro’s second choir from Grove’s. This consists of Burney’s small choir with Alfieri’s embellishment recorded in 1840 for the first half; and Mendelssohn’s similar record of 1831 for the second half. The problem is that the Mendelssohn embellishment is a record of the first half, which was apparently sung a fourth higher than written at the time of his visit. It is this that causes musicologists to squirm with the bass jumping from an F# up to a C, followed by the swift gear change into C minor. Ivor Atkins, mirrored Haas’s work for his English language edition of 1951, and also chose the plainsong for his edition somewhat spuriously.
The result is strangely beautiful, and probably here to stay. It is, after all, one of the most popular pieces of sacred music. However, it is neither a representation of the performance practice of the Sistine Chapel choir, nor a true reflection of how the piece was ever sung there.
I recommend reading Byram-Wigfield’s discussion of the various manuscripts and editions of the Miserere. As you can see from the quote above, the manuscript we have today has gone through many hands, all of whom seem to have contributed something. It’s truly fascinating to see how the piece was slowly embellished up to the 19th Century, and then all of a sudden, an amalgamation of many sources was made into the version we hear today.

The gist of my research, then, is that there isn’t an abundance of information available about Gregorio Allegri himself, his Miserere is his best known work, and the manuscript of the piece has (or perhaps I should say, the manuscripts have) a fascinating history.Liturgically speaking, the Miserere mei Deus is the text of Psalm 51, and “is a quintessential text for Lent and Holy Week.” It is also part of the Divine Office of Lauds, included every Friday morning. (Gary Penkala) Penkala’s page provides an overview of the musical structure of Allegri’s Miserere, and a detailed translation of the text. The text is deeply penitential – “have mercy on me, O God” and “wash me thoroughly from my wickedness” – in keeping with the overall penitential nature and solemnity of Lent. Allegri is only one of many composers to set the text of the Miserere mei to music. In my next Monday Music feature, I’ll be talking about another version, that by contemporary Polish composer Henryk Gorecki.

Allegri falls into an interesting period of music history; technically, he’s a late-Renaissance era composer. Allegri and Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) lived and composed around the same time in Italy, and both were composing mere decades after the prolific and gifted Italian composer, Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594). After reading Byram-Wigfield’s discussion of the Miserere manuscripts, though, I have to wonder if the original Allegri manuscript would sound more in keeping with the work of Palestrina, Victoria, Monteverdi, and other late-Renaissance composers.

Whether it was Allegri’s intention to have an ornamented work – what Byram-Wigfield refers to as the ‘High C’ version – or if that is a later accretion, it is nonetheless the aural signature of the Miserere now attributed to Allegri. It is stunning in its poignancy; the listener does not need to understand the Latin text, or the meaning of Holy Week and Lent, to identify with the emotion of the music. As with the Hildegard “O Euchari,” there is no direct connection between the meaning of the words that are sung on the ‘High C’ parts and their aural distinctiveness. Allegri has set the text straight through, and the music repeats through the various verses of text. The ‘High C’ phrase repeats several times and I find myself waiting for it, then the contrast to the minimally ornamented choral harmony that follows. The ongoing contrasts between the simplicity of the chant and the more intricate harmonies of the musical phrases is just one of the aspects about the Miserere that speaks to me.[3] However, in listening to Allegri’s Miserere alongside works by Palestrina and Monteverdi – not to mention Josquin des Prez (1440?-1521), Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), and Orlando de Lassus (1530/32-1594) – I notice that much of what I enjoy about Allegri’s Miserere is also found in works by his fellow Renaissance composers, namely the intricate harmonies, incorporation of chant or chant-like lines, and the small-choir feel of only a few singers on a part.

[1] There’s a page in the New Advent Encyclopedia, a very short entry written in 1907 by James Volker, that contains the bare bones about Allegri’s life. Volker was not the least bit impressed: “[Allegri] reached the climax of his fame when he produced his nine-voiced “Miserere” for two choirs, the value of which depends almost entirely upon its execution, in particular upon certain traditional ornaments which give a peculiar, pathetic quality to many passages, but without which it appears to be a piece of almost hopeless insipidity.”  Volker goes on to say that Allegri published two collections of his work, and his manuscripts are held in various locations in Rome.
[2] Andrew Stewart, writing for the BBC, provides a bit more information in his biographical sketch, writing, “The composer’s Miserere, with its mix of sonorous choral chant and delicately ornamented sections, remained an exclusive and carefully guarded part of papal worship until the English antiquarian Charles Burney arranged for its publication in 1770 (the year in which the 14-year-old Mozart also copied it out from memory).” Stewart also provides more information about Allegri’s service to the church in the early 1600s up until his death mid-century.
[3] The style of the piece is known as a fauxbourdon (also, falsobordone or faburden). Allen Atlas writes about the English style of faburden, “we can determine how English singers of the period ‘improvised’ three-part polyphony from plainchant. Clearly, they put the preexistent chant in the middle voice. The lowest voice belonged to the faburdener, the only singer with a real choice of what note to sing. The faburdener had to ‘sight’ (that is, visually imagine) a note that was either in unison with or a third above the plainsong and then, whichever note was sighted, sing a pitch that sounded a fith lower. Moreover, the faburdener would begin the piece by sighting a unison – thus singing a fifth below the plainchant note – and, to the extent possible, begin and end each word on a sighted unison. In between, the faburdener was free to sight thirds above, thus producing a note that was (after transposing it down a fifth) a third below the plainsong. Meanwhile, the treble, or highest voice, sang a fourth above the chant, thus paralleling the faburdener at either a sixth or an octave above.” (Atlas, Renaissance Music, 8-9) The style on which Allegri drew for his Miserere was the Continental (European) adaptation of the English faburden, the fauxbourdon. Atlast notes that “the real importance of the fauxbourdon, like that of English faburden, lay not in any aesthetic pretense of its own (though short bursts can be beautiful), but in the influence it had on compositions of a more ambitious kind…With both faburden and fauxbourdon, then, we see a process that is repeated many times in the history of Western music:  a style of improvisation – call it an ‘unwritten tradition’ – gives rise to a fairly limited, highly stylized written approximation  that in turn becomes the basis for more ambitious, freely composed compositions. And in the opening decades of the fifteenth century, this process resulted in the emergence of what we now call the triad…[which] soon became the underlying basis of composition, and transformed the sound of music.” (11) — from Allan W. Atlas, Renaissance Music: Music in Western Europe, 1400-1600, The Norton Introduction to Music History Series, New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.

First edition manuscript (scanned) score from 1771 published by Charles Burney:
Byram-Wigfield’s ‘unadorned’ original manuscript:

About Gregorio Allegri:
Byram-Wigfield Miserere analysis:
Short bit about Allegri, the liturgical function of his Miserere, and English translation of the Miserere mei Deus text:
Liturgical uses of the Miserere (text & music):
About the “Miserere Mei Deus”:
“Miserere” from the 1900 edition of A Dictionary of Music and Musicians:
Baroque Sacred Music (including the Miserere):
Excerpt from The Sixteen performing Allegri’s Miserere:
Excerpt from the Oxford Camerata performing Allegri’s Miserere:
The Westminster Cathedral Choir singing Allegri’s Miserere and other Renaissance works:

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