Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere Mei Deus – (choral setting of 51st Psalm)
I first heard this piece many years ago on a cassette recording called Mysterium Magnum, or something like that. It was a collection of various choral works from many different composers, but each piece was a particularly powerful example of the mysterious beauty of mixed voices with little or no instrumental accompaniment. It’s not only the interweaving of the 4 to 6 parts sung by groups of 6 to 30 singers, but the amazing harmonic overtones that occur as each vocal part creates ripples that merge with those of the other voices, especially when recorded in some of the great cathedrals.
Gregorian chant is a particularly good example of this effect. The notes written by the composer and sung by the singers do not include these harmonic overtones as part of the written score. But they are anticipated and the ancient styles of choral singing were designed to bring these overtones out in the performance. It’s something that cannot be written down, but is understood by the composers and singers of this style of music.
Tonight while driving to the store after being home sick for several days with the flu, Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere Mei Deus suddenly pulled me back to life when I turned on the car radio and there it was. I parked and left the car running until the piece completed. It was one of those amazing experiences that happens every so often when a piece pops out of the radio right when you needed it, a serendipitous moment of synchronistic magic. At the end of the piece the KING-FM dj told this story which I had not previously known:
Sometime after Gregorio Allegri composed this setting of the 51st Psalm, around 1638, the work thereafter was protected and a prohibition was placed on its use outside the Sistine Chapel at the appointed time. Chapel regulations forbid its transcription; indeed, the prohibition called for excommunication for anyone who sought to copy the work.
Nevertheless, the young 12 year-old Wolfgang Mozart travelling with his father arrived in Rome on April 11, 1770, just in time for Easter. As with any tourist, they visited St. Peter’s to celebrate the Wednesday Tenebrae and to hear the famous Miserere sung at the Sistine Chapel. Upon arriving at their lodging that evening after the performance, the young Mozart sat down and wrote out from memory the entire piece. On Good Friday, he returned, with his manuscript rolled up in his hat, to hear the piece again and make a few minor corrections. At some point after this, Mozart’s transcription of Allegri’s Miserere was performed (not in the Sistine Chapel) and after that the young composer was summoned by the Pope! You can imagine this young man, not yet established as a composer, shaking in his boots having to go and meet with the Pope. But according to this story, when Mozart arrived at his private meeting with the Pope, the Pope smiled and said “You are a genius, go home and write music!” And after that this Pope removed the prohibition on the Miserere being restricted and it was thereafter allowed to be performed anywhere.
Later this evening I purchased a collection of the Essential Tallis Scholars choral works and excerpted the final minute of this glorious 12 minute piece of music.
I’ve attached a .wav file of that minute to this post for you to listen to below. Then I looked up the Miserere and found some further interesting stories in an article on classical.net. You might be interested in the history of the use of the 51st Psalm in early choral music during the 16th and 17th centuries and some other information in this article on the improvisational nature of the performance styles used by choirs back then such as falsobordone and counterpoint super librum. The link to this article is here:
But what I really wanted to share with you about this piece is what this particular passage seems to do whenever I listen to it. From the very first time I heard it years ago, and again tonight, the quiet passage I’ve included below in the .wav file is a simple chordal progression in the old gregorian chant style, but then the soprano soloist soars up to a very high C and descends in a beautiful melody that is at once so simple, but so effective, so evocative, it is like a bright light piercing open my heart. It is as if some angel from on high somewhere directs some kind of angelic beam of energy directly into the center of my heart, piercing it open with a feeling that is incredibly beautiful, but not entirely without pain, and it is the realization at that moment that pain and beauty, sadness and joy, are intimately related and in an instant I realize something, or remember something profoundly important, but as quickly as the passage ends, the message vanishes. Thankfully, the passage repeats 4 or 5 times in the full 12 minute piece, so each time you get to grok/remember/realize/feel/experience the beautiful intensity of this moment of musical truth. This is a great example of the way music can convey wordless messages directly into our being, and these old masters of sacred choral music really understood how to use the sounds, the harmonies, the overtones, the voices, to express these timeless truths.
Of course the music is not actually wordless, the words are sung in latin, and perhaps knowing the exact translation of the latin phrases from the 51st Psalm being sung would shed more light on the meaning being conveyed by the music. But even without knowing that translation, the sound of the voices singing in the ancient language is enough all by itself to work incredible magic.
This passage is the final minute of the 12 minute Miserere Mei Deus performed here by the Tallis Scholars. This excerpt starts out very quietly and moves into the soaring soprano melody I described above, but then in the remaining 30 seconds of the piece the full choir returns and it is fairly loud, so don’t turn up your volume too much when you listen to this. The choir resolves the exquisite intermingling vocal parts into a final chord that shifts keys on the very last note and seems to take the whole angelic spiritual energy from on high and grounds it at the end into the physical reality of our being. You will want to hear the entire piece, which you can find easily enough on Napster, or Rhapsody, or whatever you use. Look for “Allegri’s Miserere”. Click on this link to listen to the 1 minute .wav file; Allegri Miserere Excerpt
Or, if you would like, below is a complete performance with Harry Christophers Sixteen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HrIjIhHsW_Y This video displays the text (in English) from Psalm 51 during the singing. The “bright light” soprano part occurs about 3 or 4 times throughout the piece and it is simply a sung vowel.