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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CHURCH BELLS CHIME
This is Rome - the centre of the Roman Catholic world.
Here, in around 1630,
Pope Urban VIII heard Gregorio Allegri's Miserere for the first time.
MUSIC: "Miserere" by Gregorio Allegri
He found the piece so beautiful, he decreed it never to be sung outside the walls of the Sistine Chapel.
Yet, today, the Miserere has become one of the most popular
and recorded pieces of sacred music ever written.
MUSIC: "Miserere" by Gregorio Allegri
The story of how this piece escaped the confines of the Vatican
and evolved over the next 300 years
is as captivating as the music itself.
It's a tale that involves Mozart, an obscure English music scholar,
a choirmaster from Worcester,
and a recording made here in Cambridge in the 1960s.
They all helped to transform Allegri's 17th century original
into the iconic work we know today.
MUSIC: "Miserere" by Gregorio Allegri
Gregorio Allegri was born here, in Rome,
in around 1582.
From an early age, the Catholic church and its music
had a huge influence on him.
Although we know little about Allegri's early life,
we do know from church records that in 1591, when he was about nine,
he joined the choir of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.
It was a time when the Catholic church
was still at the height of its power.
And, as head of state, the Pope wielded huge influence -
not just on religious matters
but over virtually every aspect of life.
And this was particularly true of music, as, at the time,
the Catholic church was by far the biggest single patron of the arts.
Allegri grew up in a world dominated by the Godfather of Italian music,
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina,
who, almost half a century before, redefined sacred music
with his extraordinary masterpiece the Missa Papae Marcelli.
This piece would have a huge influence on Allegri's own music.
Harry Christophers and his choir, The Sixteen,
have become world-famous for their interpretation of polyphony -
which means many sounds -
the style of music perfected by Palestrina.
Palestrina had really developed polyphony, as we know it.
It was his music that, really, the Popes revered.
Allegri was brought into the sacred world of the Papal chapels
and everything he did in the musical world had been under that influence.
The young Allegri would have learned the intricacies of polyphony well.
After his time as a choirboy,
he became the pupil of Giovanni Maria Nanini,
an intimate friend of Palestrina.
He must have shown considerable talent because, at the age of 25,
he took up a post as singer and composer at the cathedral in Fermo,
on the outskirts of the Papal states.
Then, in 1628, he returned to Rome.
Following in Palestrina's footsteps, he joined the choir of the Sistine Chapel.
It was at some point in the next decade
that Allegri composed his masterpiece, the Miserere.
It was written for the Tenebrae service,
which means shadows or darkness,
symbolising the extinguishing of the light of Christ.
Performed only in Holy Week,
at the end of a service dominated by simple plainchant,
this haunting setting of Psalm 51 sounds particularly poignant
in its spirit of humility and repentance.
Harry Christophers has put together
what he believes to be Allegri's original composition
and it's much simpler than the version we know today.
Well, this is from two manuscripts in the Vatican,
dating from around Allegri's time.
And so, piecing them together,
we're pretty certain that this is what Allegri wrote.
# Amplius lava me
# Ab iniquitate mea
# Et a peccato meo
# Munda me. #
Well, it's very simple, isn't it?
It's incredibly beautiful and in its place in the Tenebrae service,
it would be incredibly prayerful.
CHOIR SINGS IN LATIN
Allegri wrote his piece for two contrasting groups -
a main choir and a solo quartet.
Along with simple plainchant,
they take it in turns to sing each of the 19 verses.
Both choirs finally join together at the end.
QUARTET SING IN LATIN
But the version we know today is much more elaborate than the music Allegri actually wrote.
Allegri's original was very much basic.
It was bare bones.
It followed on, again, from the fact that, in the Tenebrae service,
it had become custom that at the end of the service
you'd hear a piece of music.
Up to that point, you'd had one bit of music - the lamentations.
The rest of the service was plainsong and said,
so this final piece of music was very, very special.
QUARTET SINGS IN LATIN
Even in its original form, which we rarely hear today,
Allegri's Miserere still had a big impact on the Pontiff,
when he first heard it in the middle of the 17th century.
Pope Urban was delighted with the piece.
He decreed that it should be sung only during Holy Week
and never be heard outside the Sistine Chapel.
Anyone who defied this decree faced excommunication
from the Catholic church.
CHOIR SINGS IN LATIN
So, for almost a century and a half,
Allegri's Miserere could only be heard here,
in the Sistine Chapel, by a select few.
The manuscript was never published and the piece could
only be performed as a highlight of Holy Week.
Thanks largely to Pope Urban's decree,
Allegri's Miserere soon achieved legendary status.
And the Tenebrae services featuring the piece
became a must-see event for the wealthy on their grand tours of Europe.
But in 1770, a precocious teenager dared to defy Pope Urban's edict.
According to legend, this 14-year-old,
having heard the piece only twice, went home and wrote it down from memory,
thus creating possibly one of the first bootleg editions in musical history.
It's astonishing to think that a teenager could remember
with such apparent ease this long, 12-minute piece.
But then, this was no ordinary teenager.
This was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
At the time, Mozart was already famous,
a child prodigy, he was on a European tour with his father,
and he'd been mesmerising the nobility across the Continent with his astonishing talents.
While in Rome, news of his elicit transcription
spread across the city like wildfire
and Mozart was summoned back to the Vatican by the Pope himself.
The young Mozart must have known that he faced being banished from the Church.
However, he was in for a surprise.
Instead of excommunicating him,
Pope Clement XIV, much to everyone's surprise,
congratulated the 14-year-old on his musical abilities.
Now, after 150 years and with tacit papal approval,
Allegri's Miserere could escape the confines of the Sistine Chapel.
Copies of Mozart's transcription were about to spread rapidly across Europe.
A few months after he'd broken the papal edict
and transcribed the piece, Dr Charles Burney, a British music enthusiast
from Shrewsbury, went to see the young Mozart.
Nobody is quite sure, but it would be nice to think that Burney
got a copy of the Miserere from Mozart himself.
Whatever happened, he brought a copy back to England, and in 1771, he published it.
It was an instant hit, not only in Georgian England,
but all the way across Europe.
Over the next 200 years,
there were hundreds of variations of the Miserere,
each one moving further away from Allegri's original.
Meanwhile, Mozart continued on his European tour, and shortly after
his copy of the Miserere arrived in England,
he came here himself, staying for a while
here in Soho, in the heart of London's West End.
By the time Mozart reached London,
his European tour had proved to be a huge financial success.
Perhaps breaking a papal edict even enhanced his reputation.
During Allegri's time, and indeed
when Mozart had heard the piece,
the highest parts were sung by a very particular kind of singer.
They were singers who had undergone a peculiarly barbaric surgical procedure
in order to preserve their unbroken voices.
They were the castrati -
men who had been castrated for the sake of their voice.
For just over 300 years, the castrati were the star singers
in the Cappella Sistina.
We have to remember, I think, that in the middle of the 1500s
they relied on the quality of the castrato singers at the time.
Remember that the choir consisted of... The top three voices were all castratos.
Harry Christophers believes that the castrati embellished
Allegri's original composition with their own flourishes
and high notes, and that's the real reason why the work became so highly prized by the Vatican.
Probably why there's this feeling that if Allegri's work was ever released out of the Sistine Chapel,
that somebody would face excommunication etc,
I think that was to do much, much more with the embellishments.
They were the trade secret. It was those embellishments that weren't allowed to get out.
One of the earliest accounts of a castrati singing the piece
with the soaring high notes we know today
came in the early 19th century from another famous musical figure, a German, Felix Mendelssohn.
Quite apart from being a great composer,
Mendelssohn was also something of a musical historian.
He championed the music of many great composers
and, after a trip to the Vatican,
it seems he was also one of the first to note down Allegri's Miserere
with the famous high notes.
-THEY SING IN LATIN
-Harry Christophers has been working
with his singers on this higher version that Mendelssohn heard.
THEY SING SOARING NOTES
I actually really enjoy singing the piece.
For me, it sits quite comfortably in my voice and I like singing high.
The hardest thing, actually, is singing in the quartet
because the hardest thing is getting the harmonies right and keeping the tuning between four of you.
Although it seems as though the top C is the amazing thing that comes out of nowhere,
the quartet are pulling together as a team to make sure that the whole thing works.
This is King's College, Cambridge,
home to one of the most famous choirs in the world.
In the 1960s, they performed the new version of Allegri's Miserere,
this time in English.
It was written by Sir Ivor Atkins, choirmaster of Worcester cathedral,
who had brought together many different interpretations of Allegri's Miserere,
including extracts from Burney's and Mendelssohn's transcriptions.
In 1963, Sir Ivor's successor at Worcester,
who then became choirmaster of King's College, Cambridge,
decided to record Sir Ivor's version.
It would prove to be a phenomenal success.
That choirmaster was Sir David Willcocks.
Now, the big question that most people will want to know
-is about the famous treble solo which goes up to a very, very high C.
This is Roy Goodman, who was a very good chorister. He came from Hull,
in Yorkshire. I should think he was twelve-and-a-half, maybe 13.
-So at the end of his career as a treble solo?
-An experienced boy.
-We were all ready and waiting to go
and Roy Goodman hadn't arrived. I thought, "Oh, dear! I'm sure I said four."
But he arrived breathless about five minutes later.
He said, "I'm terribly sorry. We had a rugger match today and I was captain.
"I couldn't leave." And it was so good I couldn't believe it because it is a difficult piece.
After its release in 1963,
the record proved to be a phenomenal success, becoming a classic in its own right.
For three-and-a-half centuries, Allegri's Miserere has changed
and evolved as each new generation has interpreted it for itself.
There's no way of knowing if that was Allegri's intention,
but in any case, the piece has become one of the most popular
and enduring pieces of sacred music ever written. And now to perform the piece,
in its entirety, in Latin, with those famous high notes,
is Harry Christophers and his choir, The Sixteen.
Subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
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.