No music makes such an impression on the heart, none other has such profound effects such as the old masters used to say music should have, nor brings the soul to such a feeling of deepest trembling ... as this Miserere. What one feels with this music, and must feel, nobody in the world has yet felt ... This music is unique of its kind.1
There can never have been music with so natural harmonies so delightfully heard as this Miserere ... It was accompanied by no instruments but is so full and so melodious that it cannot be imitated by anybody just from the score ... in the twilight of the evening as the lights are being put out, in a solemn silence unusual for Italians, this song of lamentation starts. On hearing these melodious tunes, one forgets the earth and is drawn from time to eternity, and can imagine one is hearing the choirs of the saints.2
Nearly a hundred years later, little apparently had changed:
Miserere was sung very slowly with long sustained chords, swelling and diminishing in strength, in almost complete darkness.3
When Moritz Hauptmann wrote this in 1871, he could not have known that the age of the Miserere was drawing to a close. In 1870 the Papal States were annexed by the new Kingdom of Italy as part of the climax of the Risorgimento. Expensive ceremonial at the Vatican was greatly reduced, and part of the cost-cutting included a dramatic reduction in the activities of the College of Papal Singers (the private choir of the Pope who sang for him wherever he went), although a group popularly known as the Sistine Chapel choir, continued (and continues) to perform at important feasts. The last director of the Papal Choir was Abbate Domenico Mustafà, a castrato singer himself (and composer, like many of his predecessors, of a Miserere) who had been named Direttore ten years earlier. He continued as conductor of the Sistine Chapel Choir (consisting of personnel from the Papal College and the choirs of St Peters’ and St John Lateran), but the increasing difficulty in finding castrati put in jeopardy the continued tradition of the Miserere performances – three every Holy Week – which had attracted visitors from throughout Europe and the world for a hundred and fifty years. In addition, old traditions were being increasingly challenged by the so-called ‘Cecilian’ movement (Cäcilianismus), which desired a cleaning of the Augean stables of romantic fantasy (and particularly, castrati), and a return to first principles in Gregorian plainchant and Stile Antico polyphony.
In 1892 Mustafà set down on paper all his recollections of a work that he himself had sung, in a way that would preserve the magic of its tradition, because it was the manner of its performance which set it apart from all other music. So in his score (Vatican MS 375) and accompanying set of parts, he recorded not only the notes but everything he could remember of the interpretation – tempi and dynamics, ornamentation and abbellimenti, phrasing and portamenti – together with copious instructions and advice addressed both to singers and future directors about expressive devices and special effects. Perhaps it was written particularly for the first soprano of the choir, Alessandro Moreschi (famous now for the recordings he made – the only castrato ever recorded), who had arrived in 1883, and certainly sang the Miserere under Mustafà’s direction. It seems in any case to have been Moreschi who finally placed it in the archives, where it remained largely undisturbed until Hugh Keyte was curious enough to ask to see it about fifteen years ago.
By the end of the eighteenth century, visitors flocked from throughout Europe to hear what they thought was Allegri’s famous Miserere. Rome in Holy Week was on every Englishman’s Grand Tour, and every German’s too. Although entry was by ticket, the crowd was always dense, with a mad scramble at the door, and there was no guarantee of a place – cynics said that five times as many tickets were given out as there were places. Charles Dickens, one of many English visitors, failing to gain entry into the Sistine Chapel in 1845, recalled:
We saw very little, for by the time we reached it (though we were early) the besieging crowd had filled it to the door, and overflowed into the adjoining hall, where they were struggling, and squeezing, and mutually expostulating, and making great rushes every time a lady was brought out faint, as if at least fifty people could be accommodated in her vacant standing-room.4
All behaviour was fair to gain admittance:
One powerful French girl, who wished the situation of an Italian lady of my acquaintance in front of her, abruptly demanded it. Being respectfully declined, she, by a process well known to schoolboys, knocked the lady’s legs from under her by striking her in the hollow of her knees, so that she fell as suddenly as if she had been shot. Before she could recover herself or her presence of mind, her place was gone.5
What was the attraction of
the Miserere? As many visitors
explained, much of it was context:
Some of the great effects produced by this piece, may, perhaps, be justly attributed to the time, place, and solemnity of the ceremonials, used during the performance : the Pope and conclave are all prostrated on the ground ; the candles of the chapel, and the torches of the balustrade, are extinguished, one by one ; and the last verse of this psalm is terminated by the two choirs ; the Maestro di Capella beating time slower and slower, and the singers diminishing or rather extinguishing the harmony, by little and little, to a perfect point.6
But a thousand times over I would go to listen to the Miserere in the Sistine Chapel ; that spot made sacred by the most sublime works of Michael Angelo ... The music, not only of the Miserere, but of the Lamentations, is solemn, pathetic, religious – the soul is rapt – carried away into another state of being. Strange that grief, and laments, and the humble petition of repentance, should fill us with delight – a delight that wakens these very emotions in the heart – and calls tears into the eyes, and yet is dearer than any pleasure.7
The daylight was failing ; the shadows crept slowly across the frescoes of the chapel, and one distinguished but a few bold strokes of Michael Angelo’s brush. The candles, extinguished one by one in turns, sent forth from their stifled flames a slender white smoke, a very natural image of life, which Scripture compares to a little smoke. The cardinals were kneeling, the Pope prostrate before the same altar where a few days before I had seen his predecessor; the admirable prayer of penance and mercy, which succeeded the Lamentations of the prophet, rose at intervals in the silence of the night. One felt overwhelmed by the great mystery of a God dying that the sins of mankind might be wiped out. The Catholic Heiress was there on her seven hills with all her memories; but, instead of the powerful pontiffs, those cardinals who contended for precedence with monarchs, a poor old paralyzed Pope [Pius VIII, elected three weeks previously], without family or support, Princes of the Church, without splendour, announced the end of a power which has civilized the modern world. The master-pieces of the arts were disappearing with it, were fading away on the walls and ceilings of the Vatican, that half-abandoned palace. Inquisitive strangers, separated from the unity of the church, assisted at the ceremony on their way and took the place of the community of the Faithful. The heart was seized with a two-fold sadness. Christian Rome, while commemorating the Agony of Jesus Christ, seemed to be celebrating her own, to be repeating for the New Jerusalem the words which Jeremiah addressed to the old.8
Suggestive gloom, nostalgia, tradition, repentance, ceremonial,
beauty – not to mention smells and bells – all these things worked a powerful
spell on visitors, even Protestant ones disinclined to take them at face value
Vanity will not allow me to suppose it weakness yet I must confess that though sufficiently aware of the empty senseless pomp, the tricked and tinsel state and pageantry of catholic ceremonies, I never have assisted in any of their great days of Devotion without experiencing a deep, involuntary, impression if not of devotion at least of reverence even for the empty shadow of religion. Afterwards I grant that recollection brings the service back to my mind clad with a thousand absurdities, a thousand whimsical conceits, hid at the time under the awful and imposing solemnity of the scene, an effect which the sublimity of catholic music contributed much to produce.9
The office of Tenebræ seems calculated to have maximum effect. Starting in the late afternoon, it combines the offices of Matins and Lauds of the following day, being celebrated on Wednesday evening for the offices of Maundy Thursday, Thursday evening for those of Good Friday, and Friday evening for those of Easter Saturday. It lasts several hours, a fact constantly alluded to by those 18th and 19th century tourists who had come for the Miserere and found themselves crammed uncomfortably into the Sistine Chapel waiting for it. Ludovic Celler described the scene in La Semaine Sainte au Vatican, published in 1867 :
The most enthusiastic among the curious had already arrived at noon, and queued until 2 o’clock ; they were then allowed into the Sistine, where they waited again until 4 o’clock. The Lamentations then started, and continued until half past six ; the wait was really long, but one puts up with anything for the Allegri Miserere, that’s what they’ve all come to hear – nothing else.10
Matins consists of nine psalms, each with its own Lesson (the first three are extracts from the Lamentations of Jeremiah) and Responsory, and of course the appropriate antiphons. Lauds has three psalms and two canticles. In the Sistine Chapel, at the end of each of these 14 pieces (12 psalms and 2 canticles), a candle was extinguished on the large triangular Candelabrum Tenebræ, leaving just the so-called ‘Christ candle’ (made of whiter wax) at the top still lit.
As the final canticle, Benedictus, finished, the lights of the balustrade were extinguished, and the ‘Christ candle’ was taken away and hidden. The Pope and his cardinals prostrated themselves before the altar, and out of the darkness inside the chapel, coinciding with the onset of night outside, came a single soprano voice (or, according to certain witnesses, two11]), intoning the final versicle ‘Christus factus est pro nobis obediens usque ad mortem...’. The rubric then requires the Pater noster and the Miserere to be said in secret. During the reign of Pope Leo X (1513–1521), it seems to have been decided that while the Pater noster should remain silent, it would be well to have the Miserere sung, an innovation which means that it is in a sense extra-liturgical. The first setting of it for this context was that of Costanzo Festa, and it set the template for all those that followed, with its formula of the alternation of a choir of five voices and another of four.12
When the Miserere was finished, a final prayer was said (‘Respice, quaesumus, Domine, super hanc familiam tuam...’), the Pope and his cardinals rose, and made a great noise with their feet on the floor to illustrate the earthquake at the sixth hour, or perhaps the chaos of the world deprived of its Redeemer, depending on which commentary you read.13 Finally the Christ candle was fetched from behind the altar, and all dispersed in silence.
As noted above, Tenebræ is sung three times in Holy Week, on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. There were thus three Misereres to be sung in the Chapel each year. Many composers sought the magic formula: among the names mentioned in the twelve different settings found in Vatican MSS 205 and 206 (and reproduced in the Avant-Propos to the French edition of 1838 – see below) are those of Luigi Dentice (1533), Francisco Guerrero, Ruggero Giovanelli (1599), Théophile Gargano (1601), Francesco Anerio (twice), Palestrina himself, Nanini (a variant of Palestrina’s), and Sante Naldini in 1617.
Allegri’s is normally said to have been composed in 1638 (although some say 1629, the year he joined the Chapel as a singer), and seems to have rapidly eclipsed most of the others, being soon performed twice, on Wednesday and Good Friday, with that of either Anerio or Naldini on the Thursday. From 1680 a Miserere by Alessandro Scarlatti occasionally replaced Naldini’s on Thursdays, but the final solution was not found until 1714, when Tommaso Bai, then director of the choir of the Cappella Giulia (the choir of St Peter’s Basilica) hit upon the ingenious plan of tailoring his setting to that of Allegri, so that the same ornaments (known as abbellimenti) could be applied to his own 4-part verses. For the public who came to hear ‘the Allegri’, they were now sure to be satisfied.14 Bai’s setting also had the advantage of much interesting harmonic variation as, unlike Allegri’s, each verse is different. It is no doubt this variety that caused it to become the ‘Miserere of choice’ by the time Mustafà made his manuscript. After Bai’s version entered the canon, the only Miserere heard more than once or twice was that composed by Giuseppe Baini in 1821, and that may have had much to do with the fact that he was the director of the choir from 1814 until his death in 1844.
Following closely Festa’s ground-plan, Allegri set the odd
verses alternately for 5 and 4 voices, with the even ones, as was usual in
fauxbourdon psalm settings, left to be sung in plainchant. The tone is
recognisably the Tonus Peregrinus, which is heard in the five-part verses
first in the second tenor, then in the soprano, and in the four-part ones
entirely in the first soprano. Allegri’s five-part choir was notated in c1 c3
c4 c4 f4, i.e. SATTB.15
The first important evolution came early in the 18th century, with the appearance of a new version of its five-part verses in Vatican MS 185, dated 1731.16 In this the second tenor part has been transformed into another soprano part, which means that the vestiges of Tonus Peregrinus are more clearly heard. Also, the second half of the verse is more elaborate, moving into polyphony after ‘secundum ma-’ for ‘-gnam misericordiam tuam’, whereas in the original version ‘secundum magnam miseri-’ was recited before the composed cadence, consisting only of ‘-cordiam tuam’.
It is worth mentioning that this revision to the second half increases its similarity to many of the 5-part verses of Bai’s setting: firstly in the division of the text between chant and polyphony, and secondly in the harmony; after the F major reciting chord, a chord of c minor leads back to the g minor of the beginning of the verse, before finishing with the double imperfect cadence of the original (D–g–D). It seems quite possible that the revision of MS 185 was made under the influence of Bai’s new setting, an early example of the cross-fertilization between the two which came to its fruition in the combination of the two in performance, as described by Alfieri, and witnessed in Mustafà’s MS.
In any case, no-one who knows the currently popular version would be disoriented by this one. Further refinements were made (not in ornaments, but in harmonic planning) in time for the version printed by Burney in 1771 as part of La musica che si Canta Annualmente nelli Funzioni della Settimana Santa nella Cappella Pontificia. This served as the basis for the five-part verses in Atkins’ edition of 1951 (see also n.38). Burney also printed the four-part verses (absent in Vatican 185) which show very little apparent evolution since Vat 206.
But all is not what it seems. Burney’s commentary, published in his companion volume The Present State of Music in France and Italy, makes perfectly clear that his score does not include everything the choir sang:
Signor Santarelli [one of the Papal singers] favoured me with the following particulars relative to the famous Miserere of Allegri. This piece, which, for upwards of a hundred and fifty years, has been annually performed in Passion Week at the Pope’s chapel, on Wednesday and Good-Friday, and which, in appearance, is so simple as to make those, who have only seen it on paper, wonder whence its beauty and effect could arise, owes its reputation more to the manner in which it is performed, than to the composition : the same music is many times repeated to different words, and the singers have, by tradition, certain customs, expressions, and graces of convention, (certe espressioni e Gruppi) which produce great effects; such as swelling and diminishing the sounds altogether ; accelerating or retarding the measure at some particular words, and singing some entire verses quicker than others.17
He goes on to describe the end (see above), a passage which has become famous as a description of the first big diminuendo on a final chord, or perhaps, according to some, throughout the final verse. Burney gives us the original Italian, from Andrea Adami’s Osservazioni per ben regolare il coro della Capella pontificia (1711) which he had acquired in Rome :
Averta pure il Signor Maestro che l’ultimo verso del Salmo termina a due Cori, e però sarà la Battuta Adagio, per finirlo Piano, smorzando a poco, a poco l’Armonia.
But he makes one or two slips especially with commas. It should read:
Avverta pure il Signor Maestro che l’ultimo verso del Salmo termina a due Cori, e però farà la Battuta Adagio, per finirlo Piano, smorzando a poco a poco, l’Armonia.
which may be more precisely translated thus:
Also the choirmaster must remember that the last verse of the psalm ends with two choirs, and so the beat should be slow, so as to finish the music piano, with a gradual smorzando. [In this context, I take ‘l’Armonia’ to mean ‘the music’).18
He continues, copying directly from Adami:
This composition used to be held so sacred, that it was imagined excommunication would be the consequence of an attempt to transcribe it. Padre Martini told me there were never more than two copies of it made by authority, one of which was made for the late king of Portugal [no doubt João V (died 1750), whose dream was to recreate the Vatican and all its ceremonial in Portugal, at Mafra], and the other for himself: this last he permitted me to transcribe at Bologna, and Signor Santarelli favoured me with another copy from the archives of the Pope’s chapel: upon collating these two copies, I find them to agree pretty exactly, except in the first verse. I have seen several spurious copies of this composition in the possession of different persons, in which the melody of the soprano, or upper part, was tolerably correct, but the other parts differed very much; and this inclined me to suppose the upper part to have been written from memory, which, being so often repeated to different words in the performance, would not be difficult to do, and the other parts to have been made to it by some modern contra-puntist afterwards.
He then goes on to recount how the Holy Roman Emperor
Leopold I prevailed upon the Pope to send him a copy for use in his chapel in
Vienna, but when it arrived and was performed, he found that it had but little
in common with the piece he had heard in the Sistine Chapel; his letter of
complaint was sufficient to have the poor Maestro di Capella who had prepared it sacked.
When this latter finally managed to make his defence (several years later!),
that the stile of singing in his chapel, particularly in performing the Miserere, was such as could not be expressed by notes, nor taught or transmitted to any other place, but by example; for which reason the piece in question, though faithfully transcribed, must fail in its effect, when performed elsewhere. His Holiness did not understand music, and could hardly comprehend how the same notes should sound so differently in different places.
It was decided that the only solution was to send the Papal singers to Vienna to instruct the Duke’s singers
in the same expressive manner as in the Sistine chapel in Rome.
But before this could happen, war broke out between Leopold and the Turks.
These passages by Burney became well known, and were endlessly repeated by later writers. At the same time, they pose many questions.
– Leopold died in 1705. He fought against the Turks on and
off throughout his entire reign, which started in 1658. The last possible date
for an unexpected outbreak of war is the mid 1690’s. So if this story is true,
it was at least three-quarters of a century old when Burney told it, and says
clearly that already, before the end of the 17th century, the
changes to Allegri’s basic score were sufficient to render it unrecognisable.
– Despite this, Burney printed a
simple, one might almost say anodyne, version of the four-part verses of the Miserere, which
presumably even then contained the most extravagant transformations. And yet he
says that he has seen many different copies, and particularly comments on the
soprano parts in them as being reasonably accurate. Among those who made a transcription ‘from
the life’ was Mozart (recounted in a letter from his father Leopold to his wife
dated April 14th, 1770), and he made it the very year that Burney
was himself there.19 It is
worth pointing out that even Mozart required two visits to be satisfied that he
had memorised it accurately. It seems unlikely that he would have needed them
to note down what Burney subsequently printed. On the other hand, it is quite
believable that lesser mortals would be struggling to get precisely even the
soprano part if it resembled what was later printed with the famous abbellimenti.
– Why should Burney print something
which only contained a fraction of the story, unless there was nothing else
available? It is worth noting that Santarelli’s copy came from the archives, as
did, in a way, Martini’s. How far did they reflect what the choir actually
sang? By the look of it, very little. One can understand that indications of
speed and dynamics might not be noted in an archive copy, but it is surprising
to find no variant notes, nor even a single one of the certe espressioni e Gruppi.
There are only two possible answers :
If Mozart’s transcription had survived, it would undoubtedly offer us a unique insight into what the Papal Choir was singing in 1770, for there are no other sources with abbellimenti before the very end of the 18th century.
The earliest of them is perhaps a manuscript now in Paris,
which is said to have been a present from Giuseppe Baini himself, and which was
brought back from Rome by a M. Mesplet. His story is told in the subsequent
edition of 1838:
At the time of the first invasion of Italy by Bonaparte, MM. Mesplet, Monge, Kreutzer, Denon and others were sent to Rome as administrative representatives responsible for objets-d’art. M Mesplet, being taken to the two little rooms containing the Pontifical Archives, ordered them to be immediately sealed. They all remained intact, and when the French left, M Mesplet returned the keys of this precious repository. The Roman Court was extremely grateful to our compatriot for his scrupulous conduct, for which they presented him with a legally binding certificate. Pius VII’s Maitre de Chapelle, M Baini, gave M Mesplet a little manuscript as a present, which he subsequently presented to the Library of the Conservatoire, and which is an authentic volume of pieces sung in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week.20
Mesplet was a musician, or at least an arranger and publisher of music. In 1806, he published a piano arrangement of Méhul’s Chanson de Roland. He followed up in 1813 with two volumes of ‘Douze adagio, andante, menuets et trio tirés des symphonies de Haydn et arrangés pour le piano, avec accompagnement du violon, par Mesplet ... chez les marchands de musique’, which was announced in the Journal Général de la Littérature de France of that year. The same volumes are listed in the Bibliographie Musicale de la France et de l’Etranger of 1822, now classified as a ‘Pot-pourri’, and available ‘chez l’Auteur’. The same source reveals his new job : ‘surveillant des classes à l’Ecole Royale de Musique et de Déclamation’, the predecessor of the Paris Conservatoire. As such he was part not of the teaching staff, but of the administration under its director Cherubini – and a small part at that21. He was still there in 1826, according to the Almanach des Spectacles for that year. He was evidently not a great man, either in the arts or in politics, as were the others – Denon, Monge and Kreutzer – named in the preface. There is no record of his dates of birth or death, and it has not been possible even to ascertain his first name.
In any case, Mesplet gave (or perhaps, lent in advance of
bequeathing in his will) the manuscript to his employers, the Conservatoire,
where it was catalogued in the Library as Recueil 32 and given the following
title : ‘Collection
de musique Tirée de la Chapelle Sixtine appartenant a Mesplet’.22 It
contains two versions of verses 1 (a5) and 3 (a4), the first said to be ‘come l’Originale’, and
the second ‘come si dove eseguire suoi rifiorimenti che s’imparano per tradizione’. For the
end of verse 3, ‘munda me’ is provided with alternative
versions of the two decorated soprano parts. The MS also contains music by Zarlino,
Bernabei, Porta, Ciciliani, Fazzini, and much by Palestrina, including
interesting variations (also marked ‘come si dove eseguire’) on the Improperia which was
sung at the Adoration of the Cross on Good Friday, and of which Mendelssohn
wrote with such admiration after his visit in 1831.23
The ‘original’ versions turn out to be virtually identical with Vat 185 (1731) for verse 1, and Vat 206 for verse 3. But the ‘reflowered’ versions contain embellishments notably different to anything hitherto written down:
[NB : slashed slurs from 1838 print]
The part of this MS which contains the Miserere was published in its entirety in 1838 by Bobœuf et Cie, rue Cadet 23 [Paris] as part of ‘Sainte Cécile, premier semestre 1838, collection de musique religieuse. Musique à très bonne marché’ under the title ‘Miserere de Gregorio Allegri. Executé le Mercredi et le Vendredi saints dans la Chapelle Sixtine’.
This piece has an immense reputation in the Christian world. We know that, apart from its great beauty, this Miserere, as well as the other sacred pieces like it, draws much of its powerful effect from its place in the ceremonies of the Papal Chapel. We can add here another interesting fact: this Miserere was for a very long time communicated to nobody, and it was strongly forbidden to give it, or to take a copy of it ; however, towards the end of the 18th century a Prince, who had been very moved when he heard it, persuaded the Holy Father to send him a copy of the famous Miserere ... 24
The preface, clearly based on Burney’s Present State of Music in France and Italy, continues with his story of Leopold I but transplanted a century later (‘vers la fin du 18ème siècle’ – later even than Burney himself!) no doubt to make it sound more up-to-date. Then follows the list (see above) of all the composers who had written Misereres, which can only have come from inside the Vatican, perhaps by knowledge of Vatican MSS 205 and 206. It finishes:
At last in 1821, on the orders of Pius VII, Giuseppe Baini, director of the Sistine Chapel, composed a final Miserere with great success ; and since that time, they restrict themselves to the three of Allegri, Bai and Baini.25
The first invasion of Italy took place in 1796, and the “administrative representatives”, including Mesplet, would have arrived as soon as possible, to assess the riches on offer and put them under lock and key ; once they had been secured, they could make off with whatever they wanted in their own time. It seems evident that the ‘two little rooms’ which Mesplet sealed contained specifically the musical archives (the complete Pontifical archives no doubt occupied several buildings) and that Mesplet was given charge of them as the musician of the party.26 Having access to them, he could have thoroughly perused 205 and 206, and no doubt recorded the information which was printed in 1838.
All these commissioners left in 1797, and it is possible that Mesplet handed back the keys and received the manuscript at that time. But he could hardly have received it from Baini, who had only joined the choir in 1795, and was not named Direttore until 1818. Moreover, despite the invasion, the Papal Choir seems to have continued to function normally, with all the usual Holy Week ceremonies, until 1809, and probably would have needed it. In June of that year, the Pope (Pius VII) was kidnapped by the French, and the Papal Choir, whose sole function was to sing for him, seems to have found itself temporarily disbanded. When they resumed activity on his return in May 1814, Baini was put in charge of reorganizing the archive and, according to his own testimony, found that the only copy of the Miserere had gone missing, obliging him to teach it to the new singers from memory.27 Mesplet’s version of events can only be true if for some reason he returned to Rome at some point around 1814 to re-open the archive and receive his gift, and if Baini was empowered at that time to give it to him. Although not impossible, it does not seem very likely, and it must be said that Mesplet’s attempt to cover himself from accusations of theft by mentioning the ‘legally binding certificate’ attesting to his ‘scrupulous conduct’, sounds rather like special pleading. But if it was indeed a unique copy, and in use until 1809, how and when he obtained it remains a mystery. Whatever the truth of the matter, it is sure that such a manuscript, dating from 1796 or earlier, went to Paris at around this time.28
The preface continues :
We present here the Miserere of Allegri, as it was published in London in 1771 by Burney. But we also add a kind of duplicate, a very interesting piece, about which here is a short preamble... 29
Then follows Mesplet’s version of how he came by the manuscript, followed by an explanation of the additions :
Among these pieces of hallowed music [in this manuscript] is the Miserere of Allegri, in the author’s original version. We print here the original text without barlines, in the manner of plain-chant ; and in addition another piece at least as precious : the same Miserere written rhythmically, and with the embellishments gradually introduced and preserved by tradition. We believe that everyone will be grateful to us for having unified these different versions and made them known.30
After reproducing Vat 185 (except for rather inexpertly imposing rhythms on the opening chanted parts of each verse), the printed edition reproduces exactly the Conservatoire MS version with the ‘fioritures’ – even down to copying inexactitudes (for example the placement of the appoggiaturas, which is imprecise in the MS). It is also worth noting that it follows the original versions of the bass parts in the first bars of verses 1 and 3 of the ‘flowery’ versions, where they make fifths with the soprano. In the MS, these have been amended with lighter ink, no doubt by a later hand. That this was a Sistine Chapel speciality which shocked some hearers can be confirmed by the account of Louis Spohr, who visited Rome in 1817:
Five solo voices intone the C minor triad in a beautiful 5-part chording, tender and pure, like a harmony from another world. Never has a simple chord made such a powerful impression on me. But then all too soon one was reminded that one was hearing an earthly music, indeed sung by Italians: for already in the second bar the ear was tortured by the sequences of fifths [second version, below]... I wouldn't have believed anybody, not even my own ears, that it could be possible to sing like that in the Sistine Chapel had I not myself heard that very section of the piece repeated four more times. Is this perhaps the mysterious manner of performing these old compositions, of which it is said that it has been passed on by tradition from one singer to another and is only known to this choir? Surely not! Only the newer (breed of) Italian singers can sing like that, as they clearly have a feeling for melody, but no idea about harmony.31
Spohr seems to have believed that the choir was trying to sing his version 1 – it does not seem to have occurred to him that all the notes not part of the C minor chord were additions, as in version 2!
But he seems to have got used to it:
Such passages as that at the commencement, where all the voices sing the same embellishment, repeatedly occur, and the ear becomes accustomed to them.32
In the twenty years after Mesplet’s small volume
found its way back to Paris, versions of the abbellimenti started to
appear in many manuscripts. No two are completely identical. Two typically
interesting ones are in London and Warsaw.
The London one is in the British Library as Ms. Add. 31525. The old BM catalogue stated it to be 18th century but, given that it is said to have been brought back from Rome by the English organist, musicologist and teacher Joseph Warren (1804–1881), whose name is on it, it is more likely to date from the first half of the 19th century.33 It is in fact two manuscripts bound together. The first is marked: ‘Come si eseguisce nella Cappella Pontificia Di Roma. In Roma presso Bened[etto] Morganti Via de Crociferi n°119 F.o’ and is attributed to “Sigr Mro Baj”. The second, in a different hand, shows more signs of haste and is unattributed except in pencil (to Bai) in a later (? cataloguing) hand, no doubt misled by the false attribution of the first version. Both contain all the verses, and the second also has copious dynamic markings. They have much in common: notably an important variation in the second half of verses 5 and 13, and an individual way of indicating the rhythm of the words on the reciting note – an asterisk is added after each syllable which has to be lengthened.
The same characteristics are found in a MS in the Biblioteka Uniwersytecka in Warsaw under the number PL Wu RM 6027.34 Bound into a collection of motets by Allegri and his 17th century contemporaries as N° 22 of Sammelband XVII, the title reads “Miserere del Sgre Maestro Gregorio Allegri, che si canta nella capella sistina il Giovedi santa”. It continues in German : “Von einem päbstlichen Sänger, mit allen Verzierungen und Andeutungen des Vortrags, aufgesetzt, wie es in der sixtinischen Kapelle von den päbstlichen Sängern gesungen wird” [notated by a Papal singer, with all ornaments and indications, as was sung by the Papal singers in the Sistine Chapel]. It lacks the last verse (‘Tunc acceptabis – Tunc imponent’), which may have been on another lost page.
Apart from a few slips, this Warsaw MS35 is virtually identical to the second version of Add 31525, and it is this latter version which seems to provide the most satisfactory text overall (see below). All three versions may derive from another source, or from several more or less parallel sources, because a number of German MSS have much in common with their readings.36
The edition of Pietro Alfieri (1840) is particularly significant, as it is the only one printed by a Roman editor. His stated justification was to correct “inexact manuscript copies without any explanation” (“copie manuscritte inefatte, e prive di schiarimento”) which had already appeared. He may also have known about the Paris publication of 1838. For some reason, he published ‘incognito’, under the name of Alessandro Geminiani, and in Lugano, Switzerland, whereas all his other numerous publications appeared in Rome.37
Alfieri gives a coherent version of the abbellimenti
from an unimpeachable source just two years after the Paris publication, with
which it has much in common. But the main interest of his publication is not
the notes, which compared to Add 31525 and its companion MSS seem a little
old-fashioned, but in the explanations he provides, which break new ground in
two important ways.
He states that the Papal Choir ‘converts G into B diapason’ (“E necessario poi sapere, che nella predetta Cappella il tono G si converte in B del Diapason”). This is the first ‘official’ mention of upward transposition, and accords with part of Mendelssohn’s testimony (from 1831), which quotes the first bar in B minor in his letter to his family of April 4th. Perhaps by the time he wrote to his old teacher Professor Zelter on June 16th, he had decided that, organ pitch at Rome being low, the piece was actually being sung in C minor. He reproduces the end of the first half of verse 3 in this key38 and continues:
But he notes also:
The key in which they sing depends on the purity of the voices. The first day it was in B minor, the second and third in E minor, but each time they finished almost in B flat minor.39
The French composer Louis-Joseph-Ferdinand Herold also noted problems with tuning in 1815:
I noticed that the singers had gone down by at least a tone.40
In 1839, the composer Otto Nicolai heard Mariano again, but this time in B flat, and considerably modified:
Further corroboration comes from Spohr, who in 1817 also heard the Miserere in C minor (see above), and Herold, who recounted in 1815 : “I was surprised that the singers sang so high. The first chord appeared to be in C minor, the soprano beginning on G.”41
As well as printing Bai’s setting of the Miserere
in the same volume (as Burney and numerous others had done), Alfieri shows that
the same ornamentation formulae apply to both works. The abbellimenti, provided
exclusively for the 4-part verses, are grouped at the end, with letters
keying them into the appropriate places in the unadorned scores: endings A and
B are for the Allegri, C, D and E for the Bai. Everything is clear for the
Allegri, but errors creep in to placement and choice of the letters for Bai,
perhaps confused by the different harmonies sometimes found in it.42
One thing that is crystal clear, however, is that the phrase which gives the
top C with the upward transposition of a fourth – endings A and C which come at
the end of the first part of the verse – is virtually identical for the two pieces
; and endings D and E are adaptations of B (D a bit longer, and E with the alto
playing a more important rôle.)43
Even more revealingly, Alfieri goes on to say that Allegri’s and Bai’s versions were routinely combined in the same performance, and then explains how this was normally done:
... though I do not know the reason, for many years they have not sung in order the verses in each piece but in the following manner. On both days is sung for the first chorus the verse for 5 voices of Bai, with the verse for four voices as found in both compositions, excepting the verse Amplius of Bai, in place of which that of Allegri is sung ; and for the last the Tunc imponent of Bai for eight voices is repeated in that of Allegri.44
While this is hardly a model of lucidity, it seems to be saying that
in a performance of Allegri’s Miserere, the first verse (a5) would be
Bai’s, before using Allegri’s setting for the rest, except that the final verse
(‘Tunc imponent’) would be sung twice, with Bai’s setting following (or
perhaps preceding) Allegri’s. When Bai’s Miserere was sung, verse 3 Amplius lava me (a4) would be Allegri’s,
before returning to Bai’s music for the rest. We note with surprise that this
means that Allegri’s version of verse 1 was never performed, and that if you
had not been told (and the version to be performed was never announced by
name), you would have had to wait until verse 5 before you could tell which
composition was being performed! There is no doubt that he is describing a
scheme worked out and perfected over time. And it is this second version –
Bai’s Miserere with Allegri’s verse 3 – which is preserved in Mustafà’s
Mendelssohn recorded something similar in his
letter of June 16, 1831 to Professor Zelter:
The Miserere sung on the first day was that of Baini ... on the second they gave some pieces [sic] of Allegri and Bai,46 on Good Friday – all was Bai’s ... However it is quite immaterial which they sing, for the embellishments are pretty much the same in all three. Each chord has its embellishments, and thus very little of the original composition can be detected. 47
Herold, who went on all three days in 1815, got a bit upset about it. On Thursday he wrote :
I heard more or less the same Miserere as yesterday. It is said to be a different one, but in that case I want to know why I heard all the same passages? We’ll see tomorrow if it’s the same again …
On Friday he was convinced: …
This evening I am sure that it was the same one as yesterday’s.48
It seems, then, that for the Papal choir, the Bai was a kind of ‘perfected’ version of the Allegri, that they were, theoretically at least, endlessly interchangeable, and that between them, they provided all the combinations necessary for the three Misereres of Holy Week.49 As far as the public was concerned, whatever they heard was ‘the Allegri’. As Celler said:
Today it was his, but when it is not his, it is the same, we heard it. Ask three different people who were in the Sistine on three different days, they will all say they heard the one and only, the unique, the amazing Miserere.50
Vatican 375 represents the final version of the “Allegri Miserere” and no doubt, for Mustafà at least, the preferred version. Although the Vatican catalogue describes it as Bai ed Allegri Psalmus 50, it is, as noted above, all Bai except for verse 3, the first four-part verse. The presence of Allegri’s music here is like a formal bow to the origin of this extraordinary piece – the verse which gave rise to the most extravagant abbellimenti, and which made the reputation of the Miserere and the Papal Choir – finally brought to perfection in the endless variety of Bai’s setting. Mustafà rehearsed a first attempt of this version in 1884, with Moreschi as principal soloist, having instructed one of his colleagues, the contralto Innocenzo Pasquali
to write down [a version with] the ornaments, in order to assure and guarantee the real tradition.51
Work on it seems to have continued until finally,
perhaps encouraged by Moreschi, he presented it to the choir on March 8, 1892,
just over six weeks after finishing the MS. The Diario Sistino describes the moment:
The Maestro Director presents his afore-mentioned Miserere, a work which has cost him many years of patient toil in order to transmit to posterity the manner in which it came to be executed ; and modestly demands of his colleagues, turning particularly to those of some seniority who remember former performances, freely to disclose their opinion of the said work, saying that he was ready to remove those flaws and to make redress for those omissions into which he may have fallen. The senior members, and with them the whole College, approve of this valuable work by its illustrious Director ; and the maestro pro tempore [Moreschi] speaks on behalf of the most reverend College as a whole in thanking him for this work of his given to the Chapel.52
Dedicating the score to Pope Leo XIII, he wrote:
Miserere by Bai and Allegri. In which are noted the work’s traditional mode of performance in the Sistine by the Singers of the Papal Chapel. Owing to the unfortunate interruptions to the continuity of papal ceremonies in consequence of which much may be forgotten, I, the writer, after forty-five years passed amongst my dear colleagues in the service of God, the Supreme Pontiff and the Chapel, have thought to describe the above-mentioned traditions (in so far as I could), as much for those who must conduct as for the solo singers, so that after many years the effects which made the Sistine performance so renowned should not be lost.
And he added a postscript :
On behalf of the College of Papal Singers I beg the Supreme Pontiff that he should not permit the making of copies.53
The habit of secrecy dies hard.
This manuscript, the last in the series begun at
the end of the 18th century, is also the logical end to that series,
and provides answers to many problems. As will be seen in the musical examples
below, the fioritures have much in
common with the manuscripts of the early 18th century (vouching for
the authenticity of those earlier MSS), and the dynamic markings are similar
to, if much more precise and copious than, those found in BM Add 31525.54 On the
question of pitch, it gives its imprimatur to upward transposition of a
fourth from the written key of G minor as the ideal, being clearly marked ‘Il tono una quarta sopra’ at the beginning. The abbellimenti in the first
half of the 4-part verses thus include a high C. One particular aspect which
makes it more interesting musically is that the abbellimenti in this version are more evenly spread amongst
the voices: notably, apart from the ‘high C moment’, the two sopranos in the
4-part verses often engage in a real dialogue of equals.
It also resolves the problem of the chanted verses, by printing one long breve (on d) for the first words of every even-numbered verse. As noted above the Miserere, when it is sung at the end of Tenebræ – as opposed to when it is chanted as the first psalm at Lauds on Maundy Thursday – is extra-liturgical: perhaps it was felt that this precluded the use of a psalm-tone. There may also have been practical reasons : 31525 and many of its related MSS state ‘il populo risponde l'altro verso’, and various other MSS use the term ‘in coro’ for these verses, although I have only found one (Basle kk XII 22:3) which actually gives the note d, as Mustafà does (which of course becomes g when transposed up a fourth). Alfieri did not even deign to call these verses music:
Finally it should be noted that the verse of the psalm which is not sung should be read [leggesi] sotto voce by the whole choir on the tone the singers end on55
although it is the kind of reading that needs the pitch of a note. It may be that a separate group of less expert singers, standing in the back of the choir space in the chapel, behind the soloists, were responsible for these verses ; in any case, use of a monotone would certainly simplify matters.
Mustafà's version includes examples of all the different kinds of embellishments already seen in earlier sources, notably short appoggiaturas, and the preliminary gruppetto – a kind of filled-in double appoggiatura resembling a turn. Mendelssohn was
struck with the meaning they attach to the word Appoggiatura. If the melody goes from C to D or from C to E they sing thus:
And this they call an appoggiatura. Whatever they may choose to call it, the effect is most disagreeable, and it must require long habit not to be discomposed by this strange practice which reminds me very much of our old women at home in church: moreover the effect is the same.56
He is talking here of the “short appoggiatura” (sometimes called an acciaccatura). The imprecision of the grace note accords with the version of Recueil 32 (see examples above), where its exact pitch is only hinted at. This is clearly not an appoggiatura in the accepted sense – an ornament with an harmonic and/or melodic function – but rather the notation of a vocal gesture (which could be described as a described as a ‘sob’) used for reasons both technical (carrying the chest voice up into the head) and expressive (an emotional exaggeration). Although Mendelssohn transcribes it with a cross-stroke, few of the Miserere MSS use this, and then unsystematically.57
The preliminary gruppetto is the most
characteristic stylised ornament of MS 375 occurring, for example, ten times in
the verse ‘Amplius lava me’
(see below and below) if we
count the bass ornament on the word ‘peccato’
as the same thing, imperfectly written out. It is a standard Italian vocal
ornament (found in most 19th century singing methods – Garaudé,
Duprez, Concone – all of which, of course, are derived from Italian models),
but here has the particularity of nearly always following a written-out portamento.58
It is interesting that the only standardised ornament signs in 375 are the
trill and the turn – all the other embellishments are written out in full.59
Most strikingly, Mustafà gives an extraordinary number of indications of portamenti, something found in no other manuscript, if we except the ‘parallel fifths’ moments that so shocked Spohr and are found in the Paris MS. Perhaps, writing his manuscript specifically for the attention of singers rather than for the archive, Mustafà marked much of what was normally left out. Stendhal would not have believed it possible:
Tradition has taught the Papal singers certain effects of portamento which are indescribably beautiful, yet which it is impossible to convey in the written score.60
The painter Ingres was particularly sensitive to their effect, which he described as follows:
Imagine a celestial voice, all alone, as powerful as a glass harmonica as it slips and passes imperceptibly from one tone to the next.61
Samuel Morse, painter and inventor of the eponymous code, also noticed this:
The Miserere is the composition of the celebrated Allegri, and for giving the effect of wailing and lamentation, without injury to harmony, it is one of the most perfect of compositions. The manner of sustaining a strain of concord by new voices, now swelling high, now gradually dying away, now sliding imperceptibly into discord and suddenly breaking into harmony, is admirable.62
And Spohr noticed particularly:
The delicate attack on a new chord while the previous one is still fading away ... is something so unique and individual that one is irresistibly drawn to it.63
There are even indications of portamento between two notes which are the same (e.g. the 2nd tenor part in the 4th bar of verse 20 ‘Tunc acceptabis’ – see below), which can only mean that the voice is supposed to momentarily leave the note to re-attack it with the others, thus ‘sliding imperceptibly into discord and suddenly breaking into harmony’.
Finally, we should note the extraordinary effect indicated in the middle of the same verse where the singers are required to make a kind of ‘collective swoop’ at the end of the word ‘holocausta’, no doubt onto an anticipation of the C minor chord which launches the 8-part section at ‘tunc imponent’.
What this manuscript does not, and cannot, resolve,
are certain questions concerning the evolution of the traditions of performance
There is still much work to do, and I hope to return to these questions at a later date.
Apart from this manuscript’s interest and status as
a witness to the final evolution of the ‘Sistine Chapel Allegri Miserere’, and as a tool for solving
some of the historical problems related to that unique work (or rather, series
of works), it has another, even more important, value – the plethora of
indications for performance it provides: the precise placement of the
embellishments and fioriture, accents
and phrasing marks, extensive dynamic indications, and its widespread use of
slurs to indicate portamenti. It is also very talkative, with detailed
instructions of interpretation: ‘sostenuto molto, dolcissimo,
portando la voce, ondeggiato, sensibile, terminando con una bella emissione di
voce...’ This is the list from verse 1…
This is a manuscript made by a singer for other singers, and what it indicates are essentially vocal gestures which start with the universal vocal act of supporting the sound on the column of air and then working towards extreme expression and communication. As such, these ‘ways and means’ are recognisably in the mainstream of the aims and techniques of 19th century singing in general, as witnessed both by the instructions found in the many published Methods, and by recordings from the end of the century – especially those involving slow, ‘pathetic’ music. By 1892, the Miserere was fast becoming an anachronism, with both its politico-religious world under attack, and its means of expression – the voice of the castrato, a hangover from another age – fast disappearing.65 The sound of the castrato was very particular: Mendelssohn described one singer as having ‘a pure, soft voice’, and another’s performance of a psalm as being ‘executed with the purest, cleanest and most even intonation’, but described the sound of them in the choir as ‘sometimes repulsively shrill’.66
Others were even less complimentary. Berlioz described the sound as being like
'the fantastic harmonies of an æolian harp hung from the top of a leafless tree’ which will give you ‘a powerful access of spleen combined with an inclination to suicide.'67
He was far from the only writer to make this unexpected comparison, even if few others mention suicide in the same breath! In fact it is difficult to know if he is commenting more about the sound or the effect of portamenti, but it is worth noting a current definition of the sound of the æolian harp:
The sound is random, depending on the strength of the wind passing over the strings, and can range from a barely audible hum to a loud scream.68
Despite that, it is clear from recorded evidence that the 19th century castrato’s world of singing technique and taste was not noticeably different to that of singers such as Adelina Patti, Eugenia Burzio and Nellie Melba. I would argue that despite its particular provenance, this manuscript not only tells us about the Miserere, but opens a window into the generality of vocal expression and technique at the end of the 19th century.
1. Pietro Alfieri: Il Salmo Miserere posto in musica da Gregorio Allegri e da Tommaso Bai, Publicato cogli Abbellimenti per la prima volta (1840)
Option A for the end of the first half of Verse 3:
Option B for the end of the second half of Verse 3 [cf. Paris alternative version]:
2. Paris Recueil 32 [Pn : D. 14499]: see above.
3. British Library Ms Add 31525, second version, verse 3:
4. Mendelssohn’s transcription: see above.
5. Mustafà MS Vat. 375 – transcription of verse 3 (and see below) :
Less ‘extreme’ abbellimenti were also added to the 5-part verses. For the version of verse 1 in the Paris MS see above. For comparison, here is the version from BM 31525, which shows clearly a certain evolution, particularly towards the end.
This article represents the one I may well have
prepared had I known in advance that it would be for me to talk about this
manuscript at the 2009 York Conference on ‘Singing Music from 1500 to 1900’.
Unfortunately the musical examples, given there by the excellent singers of the
music department, cannot be reproduced here. But here is a link to an extract from the Miserere recorded by my Ensemble William
Byrd in 2000 for Naïve [E 8846] from a transcription by Hugh Keyte.
© Graham O’Reilly (2010)