Psalm 145:8-9
Psalm 106:23

Miserere: Music For the Holy Week Liturgy...

...performed by the Westminster Abbey Choir and the Abbey Consort, under the direction of Martin Neary.

I received this CD as a gift a few years ago, a fact which I mention because the cover photograph would probably have kept me from buying it for myself.


This picture of a rather malevolent-looking young man struck me as the sort of thing a record company might do to get the attention of a browser (this was 1994) for what I presumed to be a sort of anthology of liturgical music on the themes of Holy Week, with Allegri's well-known Miserere as the selling point. I say well-known because even if you don't recognize the description you may well have heard it, as its striking long high ornamental melody has been heard in sound tracks.

I was wrong on both counts--about the photo and about the music, I mean. More about the photo shortly, but the music is by no means a casual miscellany, as the number of different composers included had led me to suppose. It is instead a carefully constructed program of first-rate music beautifully performed. I've listened to it five or six times in recent weeks, and it's become a favorite. 

The centerpieces, so to speak--more accurately, bookends--are two settings of the Miserere, or Psalm 51. In addition to Allegri's, there is one by Bai. Here is what the very extensive liner notes say:

It was a desire to set this remarkable pair of Miserere settings in some kind of fruitful apposition that was the point of departure for the present recording. This gradually assembled itself around their twin poles to form a near-palindrome of chant and polyphony for Holy Week: a musical meditation on the Passion and Death of Christ that revolves slowly on itself like a solemn ring-dance of penitence and mourning. 

Plainchant and polyphony alternate. The first track is a plainchant hymn, "Vexilla Regis" ("The King's banners"). Next is Allegri's Miserere, then the plainchant antiphon "Christus factus est" ("Christ was made obedient"). And so on. Next to last is the Bai Miserere, (credited to Bai and Allegri, for reasons discussed in the notes), and then a closing plainchant hymn with a refrain (I think) composed by King John IV of Portugal.

The polyphonic works were all written in, roughly, the late 16th and early 17th centuries, except Bai's, which is a bit later. The other composers are, in order of appearance, Lotti, Gesualdo, Gabrieli, and Monteverdi. Of their works included here, I like Gesualdo's best, which is not surprising. Church polyphony is in general a kind of music for which I have more respect than genuine love. I usually feel like I don't entirely get what's going on; I suppose I'm not sensitive enough to harmony, and the kind of instantly affecting melody that one hears in the Allegri Miserere doesn't appear very often, at least to my ears. But there's something about Gesualdo's music that appeals to me, something that seems a bit strange and a bit dark, though that latter perception may be partly a result of the fact that the only music of his that I've heard is for the Tenebrae service. And perhaps even something to do with the fact that Gesualdo is, as far as I know, the only composer of note to have murdered his wife and her lover.

Which brings me to that photo. As I mentioned, the liner notes for this recording are extensive, including a very detailed essay which focuses on the performance history, both technical and historical, of the Allegri, as well as the Latin texts and their English translations. (The two Miserere settings were for more than a century heard only in the Vatican during Holy Week, and were a very big deal. Dickens tried to get in, but couldn't; Mendelssohn did, and made a transcription of the Allegri. The fourteen-year-old Mozart had done the same, only he didn't bother to actually write it down till afterward.) By the time I got to the acknowledgments at the end of the booklet, I didn't pay much attention: thanks to "the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, all at Sony Classical," etc. etc. But later, trying to find out who was responsible for the cover, I read them more carefully, and discovered this credit: "Roberto Valeri (Prince of Venosa)". 

Then it dawned on me, and I checked Wikipedia: yes, Prince of Venosa was Gesualdo's formal title. And the back cover of the booklet shows the prince in an attitude of devotion, touching a crucifix to his forehead, and looking troubled. 

So that cover which I found off-putting is actually a subtle comment on sin and repentance, most appropriate for the project. According to Wikipedia: "The evidence that Gesualdo was tortured by guilt for the remainder of his life is considerable...."

Not surprisingly, this recording of Allegri's Miserere is one of many to be found on YouTube:



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I remember considering this CD back when it came out, and was looking for a collection which included the Allegri. I settled on a different one, probably because of either the price or the pairings, but I do recall also being somewhat put off by the cover. It struck me then as both weird and contrived. Your explanation does make sense however.

I had the good fortune a few years back to attend a concert by the Tallis Scholars in which they sang the Allegri. This was at Heinz Hall, the home of the Pittsburgh Symphony, and it was in fact a split concert, in which the Scholars did the first half of the program and the symphony the second. What was remarkable about the Allegri performance was the way that the singers were scattered around the hall. If I remember correctly five were on the stage, one was in the first level boxes on each side, and the remaining three were above us in the balcony, including the soprano who sang the high part. It gave the whole thing a very otherworldly feeling, as if one was in a cathedral rather than a concert hall.

Wow, that must have been something. As you probably know, a collection which includes the Allegri and Palestrina's Pope Marcellus Mass was an early Tallis Scholars success--maybe their first recording, I'm not sure. I have it and have been meaning to compart the two. They're bound to be pretty different, since the Westminster Choir has boy sopranos.

I also have a Gesualdo Miserere which I now very much want to hear. Or listen to, I should say--it's the last track of a 2-disk set of Tenebrae music and although I have certainly heard it I didn't give it close attention.

I just listened to the Gesualdo and Allegri back-to-back, in that order. Wow. It's like black coffee vs some kind of rich sweet liqueur.

It's the Tallis Scholars' Allegri, from the recording I mentioned above, and they apparently attempted to do in the studio something like the spacing you describe. I expect it worked better live. The main effect here was to make the sopranos sound merely distant and faint . But this is an mp3 at less than the best resolution. The cd might give more of the spatial effect.

This CD is apparently out of print. But the music is available on Pandora, so probably also on other streaming services.

I have several Tallis Scholars discs but not the one with Miserere. The one I have is by Pro Cantione Antiqua and also features Tallis's Lamentations of Jeremiah and his 40 voice Spem in Alium. It came out in 1985, but I don't recall when I actually bought it.

Spem in Alium, iirc, is another of those that has some more directly appealing melodic qualities. Can't remember about the Jeremiah piece, which I'm pretty sure I have on vinyl but haven't heard for a long time.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)