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. 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.
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. 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.