Essay on Gregorio Allegri's Miserere by Judith Eckelmeyer
Gregorio Allegri (1582-1662) spent the bulk of his life as a chorister, music director, composer, and priest in Rome. The most important part of his career came after 1629 when he served as a singer in the papal choir. During this time he created a number of motets, the most famous of which is his “Miserere”, a setting for nine voice parts of the first twenty verses of the penitential Psalm 51. The work became a customary component of the Tenebrae service and was performed on Wednesday and Friday in Holy Week in the Papal (Sistine) Chapel.
The Papal (Sistine) Chapel, Vatican City
It is worth remembering that in the Papal Chapel only male singers performed (with no instrumental accompaniment). From the mid-17th century on, the motet’s fame enticed editors and composers to introduce changes into the motet’s performing forces and content, eventually scoring the work for women as well as men.
The musical forces in the “Miserere” are organized into two choirs. Choir I is a full ensemble comprised of two soprano parts, altos, tenors, and basses presenting simple, fairly static melodies harmonized in chords, with brief moments in chant style and occasional very limited counterpoint. Choir II is a solo ensemble of two sopranos, alto, and bass, who introduce more active, typical early Baroque rhythms as well as extreme ranges—up to a high C for the top soprano. Choir I and Choir II alternate in the presentation of harmonized psalm verses; between the ensemble verses, men chant a verse in unison. Thus, as the motet progresses, there are three sonorities in regular rotation: Choir I’s multi-voice ensemble in harmony, followed by unison chanting by men, then Choir II’s four soloists singing more actively in harmony; then plainchant again, then the large ensemble, and so on. This pattern continues till the middle of the psalm’s 20th verse, at which point the two choirs join into a nine-part ensemble to complete that verse and end the motet. The simple harmonic beauty, the fascinating alternation of performing sonorities, the breathtaking ornamental working of the soloists’ ensemble, and the magnificent nine-voice conclusion combine with the passionate psalm text to form an extraordinary experience for those who hear this motet.