Allegri: Miserere mei, Deus

Miserere mei, Deus

BORN: 1582. Rome, Italy
DIED: February 7, 1652. Rome

COMPOSED: Apparently composed during the 1630s, with 1638 being a good possibility. It was written for the Papal Choir

WORLD PREMIERE: The Papal Choir performed the premiere in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican in Rome during the Tenebrae services of Holy Week


INSTRUMENTATION: A main chorus of 5 parts (soprano, alto, two tenors, and bass) and a sub-ensemble of 4 solo singers (2 sopranos, alto, and baritone)

DURATION: About 12 mins

THE SETTING Gregorio Allegri learned his trade while singing as a boy soprano. He seems to have become active as a composer when he was employed as a singer at the cathedrals of Fermo (in Marche, on Italy’s Adriatic coast) and Tivoli (about twenty miles east of Rome), and by 1628 he was appointed maestro di cappella at the Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia, in Rome.

The following year, on December 6, 1629, Allegri joined the Papal Choir, and he stayed there for the rest of his life. The arts flourished under Pope Urban VIII, who reigned from 1623 to 1644. (It was he who commissioned from the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini the Fontana del Tritone in the Piazza Barberini and the baldacchino and cathedra in Saint Peter’s Basilica.) Urban VIII was expert in Classical Latin, and he decided that the hymns in the Roman Breviary needed to be recast in the form of Classical verse models, a project he oversaw personally. The resulting textual revisions meant that the words no longer fit with the standard musical settings created for them by the venerated Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina in the sixteenth century. The members of the Papal Choir elected Allegri to adapt Palestrina’s compositions to the new words.

When Allegri died in 1652, he was buried near the chapel of Santo Filippo Neri in Rome’s Chiesa Nuova (aka Santa Maria in Vallicella), to which the remains of the Papal singers were destined. At the site was inscribed the epitaph:

Cantores pontificii
Ne quos vivos
Concors melodia junxit,
Mortuos corporis discors resolution dissolveret,
Hic una condi voluêre.

[The pontifical singers
Anxious that those
Whom harmony united in life
Should not be separated in death
Wished this as their burial place.]

THE MUSIC Allegri’s compositions include five Masses, numerous motets, and two collections of concertini, which were modestly scaled pieces in early-Baroque concertato style meant for use in small churches. His name lives on through his Miserere, which became the stuff of legend.

This piece is a setting of Psalm 51 (Psalm 50, in theVulgate), the text of which alternates among stretches of plainchant (always reciting on a single note, in speech rhythm) and sections of polyphony (when the music is harmonized in several parts) that feature the main choir and a sub-choir of four singers. The two choirs alternate in the course of the nineteen verses of the psalm, combining only for the last verse. The most astonishing moments come in the sub-choir’s portions, when a solo soprano ascends to a high C—an extraordinary effect. If we trace this Miserere back to its source, we find two manuscripts from Allegri’s lifetime. The high Cs figure in neither.

In its “period” form, Allegri’s Miserere was a piece in falsobordone style, which was very popular in the years around 1600. (Falsobordone melodies followed the contours of existing chants and were harmonized using simple harmonies.) Although falsobordone style looks simple on paper, it was often considerably ornamented in performance, and sometimes those ornaments were embraced as part and parcel of the piece. Ornaments—such as the astonishing high Cs in this work—were not improvisation as we know it today, but rather set pieces that the choir knew by hear, and which they placed in music whenever appropriate. Miserere shows off these musical gambits to their most extravagant degree.

The singers of the Papal Chapel were likewise leading virtuosos, the most exceptional among them being the castratos, who sang the soprano and alto parts. It is credible that the soprano of the solo quartet may have interpolated high Cs into the piece from the outset. In music of earlier times, printed (or manuscript) scores may not tell the whole story, by a long shot. Pope Urban’s infatuation with the Miserere had less to do with how it appeared on the page than how it sounded in performance, which were very different things.

Allegri’s setting struck a chord with Pope Urban and he subsequently proclaimed that it must never be allowed outside the Vatican; anybody who dared to flout his dictum would be condemned to excommunication. The prohibition added to the piece’s allure. It became a staple in the Papal Choir’s repertory, and many travelers timed their visits to overlap with the Holy Week celebration of Tenebrae, when it figured in the liturgy. The prohibition was famously broken by Wolfgang Amadè Mozart, who, visiting Rome as a fourteen-year-old in 1770, transcribed the piece after hearing it. He didn’t get excommunicated. Instead, Pope Clement XIV signaled his approval, and Mozart’s copy may have served as a source for the English music historian Charles Burney, who published Allegri’s Miserere the following year. Other editions ensued, including a version as transcribed by Felix Mendelssohn when he heard it in Rome. The work’s details varied from edition to edition, not only in the matter of the high Cs but also in the complexity of other vocal lines and of the harmony itself. Not a few purported to incorporate niceties heard at live performances.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
RECORDINGS 12-year-old treble soloist Roy Goodman (later an admired conductor and violinist) with David Willcocks and the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, from 1963 and sung in English (London/Decca Legends)  |  Peter Phillips directing the Tallis Scholars (Gimell)  | John Scott conducting the Choir of Saint Paul’s Cathedral (Hyperion)

READING Miserere mei, Deus: Gregorio Allegri: A Quest for the Holy Grail?, by Ben Byram-Wigfield (Ancient Groove Music)  |  Music and Spectacle in Baroque Rome: Barberini Patronage under Urban VIII, by Frederick Hammond (Yale University Press)  |  Singing Jeremiah: Music and Meaning in Holy Week, by Robert L. Kendrick (Indiana University Press)

(October 2016)