Monday, July 30, 2007

The Allegri "Miserere"

Dateline: Seattle. Tallis Scholars Summer School
Last night we all attended a concert at St. James Cathedral here in Seattle, where our teachers (the Tallis Scholars) sang along with a local professional group, Peter Phillips conducting. It was amazing, and enlightening to see all the things they keep haranguing us about put into practice. In particular, they are all over us about brighter vowel sounds (much brighter and more forward than the way we have all been taught to sing by choir directors here in the U.S.). Hearing this very small group create such a full, sparkling sound pretty much convinced me.

They did a stunning performance of Allegri’s famous Miserere. It is one of the most famous pieces of a cappella religious music performed today. I have heard recordings, but never heard it live before last night. It was gorgeous – the main, 5-part choir in the center of the cathedral, the small, 4-part “chant” choir (with Jan as the soprano soloist doing all the famous High Cs) up at the altar, and Andrew at the back of the aisle singing the lines of the psalms (which fall in between the chorus bits). To think that we’re going to perform this same piece on Friday night….can’t imagine it.

They were singing from an version of the piece that is Peter Phillips’ own edition – he has worked hard to try to restore it to what he believes is something close to the original, mid-17th century edition. Earlier in the afternoon, he gave us a brief lecture about the history of this piece. It was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII to be sung in the Sistine Chapel during matins on Wednesday and Friday of Holy Week. At the end of the Tenebrae service, 27 candles would be extinguished one by one, and at the end, the pope would kneel in prayer as the Miserere was sung by the Cappella Sistina (the Vatican Choir) in an embellished, improvisational style that included improvised counterpoint. The piece was so highly valued that it was forbidden to be copied or performed outside of the Sistine Chapel – under penalty of excommunication!

Several copies were smuggled out, but none included the signature improvisations, so it was hard to duplicate the magic of the Vatican choir. Then, during Holy Week, 12-year-old Mozart was taken by his father to the Vatican for services. He listened, and went home and wrote the whole thing down from memory! That copy has unfortunately been lost, and there have been many, many versions over the centuries (including Mendelssohn’s, who also listened to a performance and then attempted to capture it on paper). The one we will learn this week is the Phillips edition, and he was quite passionate in talking about what he believes was authentic, and why. As he admitted, “It’s not Renaissance, it’s not polyphony, and it’s nothing at all to do with the Sistine Chapel.” But it certainly is beautiful.

Such an interesting week this is. I am off to dive into another morning of rehearsal. We will finish learning the Palestrina Mass today (and a good thing, since we’re performing it tomorrow night).

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