This post is brought to you by American Airlines and the miserable weather blanketing both the Midwest and the East Coast: a cancelled flight and the subsequent thirteen-hour limbo at O’Hare provided me an opportunity to share some thoughts on Easter music.
Allegri’s Miserere (Psalm 51) ranks as one of the prime one-hit wonders in musical history for the magnitude of its longevity and popularity. This storied piece occupies a special place in the repertoire of Renaissance polyphony and is performed during Holy Week for Tenebrae on Wednesday and on Good Friday. It is said that transcription of the piece was forbidden on the pain of ex-communication by the church, but one musician was impudent and brilliant enough to memorize the piece by ear and later reproduce it for publication by an English historian. The teenage Mozart was subsequently summoned by the Pope. As Mozart continued his prodigious output into his thirties, one can guess that no grave punishment befell him. Instead, the Pope praised him for his musical talent, and the ban on publication was lifted. This is as if Julian Assange was brought to the Oval Office to be given a pat on the back and a friendly “How’d you do it?” from President Obama.
The piece is approximately ten minutes in length and calls for two spatially-separated choirs: a “main” choir of five voices and a “solo” choir often comprised of four choristers. Its structure is simple: the choirs alternate verses, which are separated by brief sections of chant sung by a tenor. The verses sung by the main choir are based on the original Gregorian chant, while the solo choir sings a more elaborate response. Each verse of chant is set to one stanza of the Latin version of the psalm.
The description seems simple, but the effect is pure magic. Tension builds throughout the verses and is abated by the stoic sections of chant. The choir begins verses with a chant-like recitation of multiple syllables on one chord, like the outpouring of the confessor to the priest. The vocal ornamentation in the verses of the solo choir break up the monotony of a descending melodic line or add colour to a suspension. Harmony is unconventional for the period: a dominant seventh in the lower voices sets up the legendary, high ‘C’ that recurs in the solo choir verses, mimicking a desperate cry directed to the heavens. Relief arrives in the stunning final stanza, sung by both choirs. At last, the choir elongates the first syllables, and the chord is broken by the descent of the alto line. The soprano line floats above the arrangement with minimal fluctuation while the alto and tenor carry most of the melody. As the verses are musically repetitious, dynamic and stylistic changes are key to emphasizing the text: the music is a blank canvas, but the work of art as exhibited by the choir can evoke despair, plaintiveness, or contrition. The performer must balance constancy of tempo, pitch, and other basic elements necessary for musical fidelity with variation to bring out the emotion in what is, in essence, a penitent cry. Compare two performances by King’s College, Cambridge (with trebles and no spatial separation) and the Tallis Scholars (with sopranos and spatial separation), and note that both occur in large churches. This piece takes full advantage of the unique qualities of these sacred spaces, transforming acoustic reverberation into emotional resonance.
Despite its specific religious origin, Miserere belongs to the category of rarefied compositions that triggers a sort of universal spiritual experience in listeners – just read the YouTube comments.