Sacred Music: The Story of Allegri's Miserere


Sacred Music: The Story of Allegri's Miserere

Simon Russell Beale tells the story behind Allegri's Miserere, one of the most popular pieces of sacred music ever written. Features a full performance by the Sixteen.


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Transcript


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CHURCH BELLS CHIME

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This is Rome - the centre of the Roman Catholic world.

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Here, in around 1630,

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Pope Urban VIII heard Gregorio Allegri's Miserere for the first time.

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MUSIC: "Miserere" by Gregorio Allegri

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He found the piece so beautiful, he decreed it never to be sung outside the walls of the Sistine Chapel.

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Yet, today, the Miserere has become one of the most popular

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and recorded pieces of sacred music ever written.

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MUSIC: "Miserere" by Gregorio Allegri

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The story of how this piece escaped the confines of the Vatican

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and evolved over the next 300 years

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is as captivating as the music itself.

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It's a tale that involves Mozart, an obscure English music scholar,

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a choirmaster from Worcester,

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and a recording made here in Cambridge in the 1960s.

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They all helped to transform Allegri's 17th century original

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into the iconic work we know today.

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MUSIC: "Miserere" by Gregorio Allegri

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MUSIC CONTINUES

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Gregorio Allegri was born here, in Rome,

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in around 1582.

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From an early age, the Catholic church and its music

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had a huge influence on him.

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Although we know little about Allegri's early life,

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we do know from church records that in 1591, when he was about nine,

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he joined the choir of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.

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It was a time when the Catholic church

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was still at the height of its power.

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And, as head of state, the Pope wielded huge influence -

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not just on religious matters

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but over virtually every aspect of life.

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And this was particularly true of music, as, at the time,

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the Catholic church was by far the biggest single patron of the arts.

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Allegri grew up in a world dominated by the Godfather of Italian music,

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Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina,

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who, almost half a century before, redefined sacred music

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with his extraordinary masterpiece the Missa Papae Marcelli.

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This piece would have a huge influence on Allegri's own music.

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Harry Christophers and his choir, The Sixteen,

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have become world-famous for their interpretation of polyphony -

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which means many sounds -

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the style of music perfected by Palestrina.

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CHOIR SINGS:

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Palestrina had really developed polyphony, as we know it.

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It was his music that, really, the Popes revered.

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Allegri was brought into the sacred world of the Papal chapels

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and everything he did in the musical world had been under that influence.

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The young Allegri would have learned the intricacies of polyphony well.

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After his time as a choirboy,

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he became the pupil of Giovanni Maria Nanini,

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an intimate friend of Palestrina.

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He must have shown considerable talent because, at the age of 25,

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he took up a post as singer and composer at the cathedral in Fermo,

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on the outskirts of the Papal states.

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Then, in 1628, he returned to Rome.

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Following in Palestrina's footsteps, he joined the choir of the Sistine Chapel.

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It was at some point in the next decade

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that Allegri composed his masterpiece, the Miserere.

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It was written for the Tenebrae service,

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which means shadows or darkness,

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symbolising the extinguishing of the light of Christ.

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Performed only in Holy Week,

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at the end of a service dominated by simple plainchant,

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this haunting setting of Psalm 51 sounds particularly poignant

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in its spirit of humility and repentance.

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Harry Christophers has put together

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what he believes to be Allegri's original composition

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and it's much simpler than the version we know today.

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Well, this is from two manuscripts in the Vatican,

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dating from around Allegri's time.

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And so, piecing them together,

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we're pretty certain that this is what Allegri wrote.

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# Amplius lava me

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# Ab iniquitate mea

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# Et a peccato meo

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# Munda me. #

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Well, it's very simple, isn't it?

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It's incredibly beautiful and in its place in the Tenebrae service,

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it would be incredibly prayerful.

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CHOIR SINGS IN LATIN

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Allegri wrote his piece for two contrasting groups -

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a main choir and a solo quartet.

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Along with simple plainchant,

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they take it in turns to sing each of the 19 verses.

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Both choirs finally join together at the end.

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QUARTET SING IN LATIN

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But the version we know today is much more elaborate than the music Allegri actually wrote.

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Allegri's original was very much basic.

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It was bare bones.

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It followed on, again, from the fact that, in the Tenebrae service,

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it had become custom that at the end of the service

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you'd hear a piece of music.

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Up to that point, you'd had one bit of music - the lamentations.

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The rest of the service was plainsong and said,

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so this final piece of music was very, very special.

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QUARTET SINGS IN LATIN

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Even in its original form, which we rarely hear today,

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Allegri's Miserere still had a big impact on the Pontiff,

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when he first heard it in the middle of the 17th century.

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Pope Urban was delighted with the piece.

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He decreed that it should be sung only during Holy Week

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and never be heard outside the Sistine Chapel.

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Anyone who defied this decree faced excommunication

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from the Catholic church.

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CHOIR SINGS IN LATIN

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So, for almost a century and a half,

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Allegri's Miserere could only be heard here,

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in the Sistine Chapel, by a select few.

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The manuscript was never published and the piece could

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only be performed as a highlight of Holy Week.

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Thanks largely to Pope Urban's decree,

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Allegri's Miserere soon achieved legendary status.

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And the Tenebrae services featuring the piece

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became a must-see event for the wealthy on their grand tours of Europe.

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But in 1770, a precocious teenager dared to defy Pope Urban's edict.

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According to legend, this 14-year-old,

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having heard the piece only twice, went home and wrote it down from memory,

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thus creating possibly one of the first bootleg editions in musical history.

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It's astonishing to think that a teenager could remember

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with such apparent ease this long, 12-minute piece.

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But then, this was no ordinary teenager.

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This was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

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At the time, Mozart was already famous,

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a child prodigy, he was on a European tour with his father,

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and he'd been mesmerising the nobility across the Continent with his astonishing talents.

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While in Rome, news of his elicit transcription

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spread across the city like wildfire

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and Mozart was summoned back to the Vatican by the Pope himself.

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The young Mozart must have known that he faced being banished from the Church.

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However, he was in for a surprise.

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Instead of excommunicating him,

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Pope Clement XIV, much to everyone's surprise,

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congratulated the 14-year-old on his musical abilities.

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Now, after 150 years and with tacit papal approval,

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Allegri's Miserere could escape the confines of the Sistine Chapel.

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Copies of Mozart's transcription were about to spread rapidly across Europe.

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A few months after he'd broken the papal edict

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and transcribed the piece, Dr Charles Burney, a British music enthusiast

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from Shrewsbury, went to see the young Mozart.

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Nobody is quite sure, but it would be nice to think that Burney

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got a copy of the Miserere from Mozart himself.

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Whatever happened, he brought a copy back to England, and in 1771, he published it.

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It was an instant hit, not only in Georgian England,

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but all the way across Europe.

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Over the next 200 years,

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there were hundreds of variations of the Miserere,

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each one moving further away from Allegri's original.

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Meanwhile, Mozart continued on his European tour, and shortly after

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his copy of the Miserere arrived in England,

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he came here himself, staying for a while

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here in Soho, in the heart of London's West End.

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By the time Mozart reached London,

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his European tour had proved to be a huge financial success.

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Perhaps breaking a papal edict even enhanced his reputation.

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During Allegri's time, and indeed

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when Mozart had heard the piece,

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the highest parts were sung by a very particular kind of singer.

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They were singers who had undergone a peculiarly barbaric surgical procedure

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in order to preserve their unbroken voices.

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They were the castrati -

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men who had been castrated for the sake of their voice.

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For just over 300 years, the castrati were the star singers

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in the Cappella Sistina.

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We have to remember, I think, that in the middle of the 1500s

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they relied on the quality of the castrato singers at the time.

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Remember that the choir consisted of... The top three voices were all castratos.

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Harry Christophers believes that the castrati embellished

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Allegri's original composition with their own flourishes

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and high notes, and that's the real reason why the work became so highly prized by the Vatican.

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Probably why there's this feeling that if Allegri's work was ever released out of the Sistine Chapel,

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that somebody would face excommunication etc,

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I think that was to do much, much more with the embellishments.

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They were the trade secret. It was those embellishments that weren't allowed to get out.

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One of the earliest accounts of a castrati singing the piece

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with the soaring high notes we know today

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came in the early 19th century from another famous musical figure, a German, Felix Mendelssohn.

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Quite apart from being a great composer,

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Mendelssohn was also something of a musical historian.

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He championed the music of many great composers

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and, after a trip to the Vatican,

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it seems he was also one of the first to note down Allegri's Miserere

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with the famous high notes.

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-THEY SING IN LATIN

-Harry Christophers has been working

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with his singers on this higher version that Mendelssohn heard.

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THEY SING SOARING NOTES

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I actually really enjoy singing the piece.

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For me, it sits quite comfortably in my voice and I like singing high.

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The hardest thing, actually, is singing in the quartet

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because the hardest thing is getting the harmonies right and keeping the tuning between four of you.

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Although it seems as though the top C is the amazing thing that comes out of nowhere,

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the quartet are pulling together as a team to make sure that the whole thing works.

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This is King's College, Cambridge,

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home to one of the most famous choirs in the world.

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In the 1960s, they performed the new version of Allegri's Miserere,

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this time in English.

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It was written by Sir Ivor Atkins, choirmaster of Worcester cathedral,

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who had brought together many different interpretations of Allegri's Miserere,

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including extracts from Burney's and Mendelssohn's transcriptions.

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In 1963, Sir Ivor's successor at Worcester,

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who then became choirmaster of King's College, Cambridge,

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decided to record Sir Ivor's version.

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It would prove to be a phenomenal success.

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That choirmaster was Sir David Willcocks.

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Now, the big question that most people will want to know

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-is about the famous treble solo which goes up to a very, very high C.

-Yes. Ah!

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This is Roy Goodman, who was a very good chorister. He came from Hull,

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in Yorkshire. I should think he was twelve-and-a-half, maybe 13.

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-So at the end of his career as a treble solo?

-Yes.

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-An experienced boy.

-We were all ready and waiting to go

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and Roy Goodman hadn't arrived. I thought, "Oh, dear! I'm sure I said four."

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But he arrived breathless about five minutes later.

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He said, "I'm terribly sorry. We had a rugger match today and I was captain.

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"I couldn't leave." And it was so good I couldn't believe it because it is a difficult piece.

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After its release in 1963,

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the record proved to be a phenomenal success, becoming a classic in its own right.

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For three-and-a-half centuries, Allegri's Miserere has changed

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and evolved as each new generation has interpreted it for itself.

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There's no way of knowing if that was Allegri's intention,

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but in any case, the piece has become one of the most popular

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and enduring pieces of sacred music ever written. And now to perform the piece,

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in its entirety, in Latin, with those famous high notes,

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is Harry Christophers and his choir, The Sixteen.

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APPLAUSE

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Subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing by Red Bee Media Ltd

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E-mail [email protected]

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Simon Russell Beale tells the story behind Allegri's Miserere, one of the most popular pieces of sacred music ever written. The programme features a full performance of the piece by the award-winning choir the Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers.


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