February 20 2017

Allegri’s Miserere: the evolution of a choral masterpiece


 Very few western choral works have experienced a musical evolution (alongside legendary tales) like Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus. This a capella choral piece was first sung in the Sistine Chapel during the 1630s. It was considered so sublime that the Pope forbade the transcription the music and prohibited it being performed anywhere else.


According to legend, W.A. Mozart (born over 100 years after the piece was composed) had traveled to Rome as a young man and heard Allegri’s Miserere. He wrote down the music from memory later the same day he heard it, and several years later it was published in London. During the Romantic Period (another century after Mozart), Felix Mendelssohn had also transcribed Miserere, this time with more of the famous high notes we often hear today.


Allegri’s ‘Miserere mei, Deus’ was performed exclusively in the Sistine Chapel as part of the Tenebrae service on Holy Wednesday and Good Friday of Holy Week, during the first 100 years of its creation. (Photo by Franco S. Origlia/Getty Images)


We face several mysteries regarding how this piece was originally heard in the 17th century. One of the main mysteries lies in the ornamentation, or embellishments, used in the piece. During the time it was first sung, the Vatican had protected the techniques singers were using in the piece. Another challenge is that very few manuscripts showed the actual notes being sung. Today, we can make credible but educated guesses on the style of ornamentation used as there were commonly accepted practices of ornamentations 400 years ago. Watch the video below to hear some of the evolutions that Allegri’s Miserere has encompassed over the centuries.


Another change that applies to more than Allegri’s works is that top vocal lines would have been sung by castratos as females were prohibited at that time from singing in churches. The most captivating moments in Allegri’s Miserere is when the top line in the quartet sings a high ‘C’. In modern times, you’ll hear this line being sung by a well-trained soprano.


Hear Allegri’s Miserere amongst other stunning choral works by Palestrina, Pizzetti, Monteverdi, Gabrieli, and Lotti on February 25th by the Vancouver Cantata Singers. These composers are giants of the Italian choral repertoire. Living across a span of four hundred years, each composer found exquisite beauty in glorious sonorities that underscore the rich and moving texts.

De Profundis: Palestrina to Pizzetti takes place on February 25th in one of the most acoustically satisfying venues in Vancouver, Holy Rosary Cathedral. Don’t miss it!


Hear Allegri’s Miserere sung by Vancouver Cantata Singers on February 25th, 2017