Memorable and illuminating exploration of the Miserere, its rivals earlier and later, by The Tudor Consort and Michael Stewart

The Tudor Consort conducted by Michael Stewart

Miserere:  Music for Holy Week

Cathedral of Saint Paul, Wellington

Friday 3 April, 7:30 pm

I have been rather neglectful in recent years of pre-concert talks. This time, even in the disagreeable face of train replacement by buses and possible crowds heading for the Stadium, I decided to expose myself to the possibility that I might learn something by listening to Michael Stewart. I had already heard him talking with Eva Radich on Upbeat and wanted to get a bit more clarity on the subject of the vicissitudes of Allegri’s Miserere. A very good crowd had also come early to hear the talk, which Michael illustrated with projections of various parts of various versions of the work, as well as by singing key phrases with such acute brilliance.

The Miserere is the first word of Psalm 51 (50 in the Latin, Vulgate Bible) and has long been a part of the Catholic liturgy for Holy Week, sung at the end of the Tenebrae office, ritually sung in increasing darkness as 15 candles are extinguished in the course of the singing. At its end there follows the Strepitus, or loud noise that represents the earthquake believed to have followed Christ’s death, done by ‘slamming a book shut, banging a Hymnal or Breviary against the pew, or stomping on the floor’ (Wikipedia).

Michael Stewart’s commentary
Stewart spoke of the various versions of the Miserere, both before and after Allegri’s; the secrecy imposed on the Allegri setting by the Vatican, its notation by the 14-year-old Mozart (thus in 1770), and the Papal response later, as Clement XIV praised Mozart personally for the genius of his accuracy in transcription. In the meantime Mozart had given English music historian Charles Burney a copy and it was published in 1771 (so soon?).  Later aural recordings were made by Mendelssohn and Liszt.

The young Mozart’s action was recorded in a letter home from Wolfgang’s father immediately after.

It was also recorded in 1792, the year after Mozart’s death, by his sister: “…they travelled on the 15th March 1770 to Parma, Bologna, Florence, [on] to Rome, here they arrived during Holy Week. On Wednesday afternoon they accordingly went at once to the Sistine Chapel, to hear the famous Miserere. And as according to tradition it was forbidden under ban of excommunication to make a copy of it from the papal music, the son undertook to hear it and then copy it out. And so it came about that when he came home, he wrote it out, the next day he went back again, holding his copy in his hat, to see whether he had got it right or not. But a different Miserere was sung. However, on Good Friday the first was repeated again. After he had returned home he made a correction here and there, then it was ready. It soon became known in Rome, [and] he had to sing it at the clavier at a concert.”

But one has to note that the co-author of the version performed by The Sixteen under Harry Christophers, Ben Byram-Wigfield, writes: “And several myths have grown up around the piece, such as the idea that the Pope forbade copying of the work, punishable by excommunication; and the young Mozart supposedly copying the work after hearing it performed. Neither is true.”  (

The question of embellishment was also interesting. It is said that the actual ornaments used in the Sistine Chapel were, as much as anything, the most closely guarded, and the version that Burney published did not include them. They were not in the public domain until Roman priest Pietro Alfieri published an edition in 1840, which preserved the performance practice, including ornamentation, of the Sistine choir.

Stewart also dealt with the modifications to the scoring accounting for the non-authentic ‘high Cs’ in the version we know, thought to be the result of transposition. Again, Ben Byram-Wigfield notes: “the ‘Top C’ version, which was never performed in Rome, … merely a serendipitous scribal error”.

Thus, what a great idea to perform both the original version and that current today!

Two Allegri versions
The conventional version with the High Cs was sung in the first half. To enhance the impact of the high female voices, all singers of the quartet (sopranos Pepe Backer, Melanie Newfield, alto Andrea Cochrane and bass David Houston) went to the gallery above the south (Molesworth Street) door and their voices created the most thrilling effect at each return to inauthentic (if you must) bursts of spiritually ecstatic exclamation. The contrast with the other fourteen singers was marked, their voices more suffused in the huge main space of the cathedral. There was a breathless conviction about the whole performance.

Alfieri’s account of the original, with the best realisations we will ever have of the original embellishments, was sung after the interval. Here, all the singers except Paul Stapley who sang the plainsong part from the pulpit, remained at the front of the Choir. While the female voices had similar effects to handle, it was naturally less thrilling that with voices emanating from high above the nave, though awareness of the modern version teased us with an expectation that treble phrases would rise higher. Stapley’s contributions were very fine, projected with ease, even delivery allowing discreet dynamic changes, but with arresting pauses in the middle of his stanzas.

The other Miserere settings
But there was much more of great interest in this concert whose intention was to let us hear other treatments of the Miserere. First was a short setting by William Byrd, the performance of which revealed the composer’s ability to convey the feelings of lamentation and self-flagellation so beloved of religion.

And the even earlier setting (around 1503) by Josquin des Prez, evidently the best known setting before Allegri. It was thought to have been inspired as a testament to Savonarola who called for ‘Christian renewal’ and the church’s reform. He denounced clerical corruption, despotic rule and the exploitation of the poor, and was a painful thorn in the Papacy’s side. He was tortured and executed by Pope Alexander VI in 1498. Josquin’s composition is not given to expressing much sense of exultation, and expression of praise of the Almighty, which is a significant purpose of the Psalm, but emphasised our sins and the need to be purged and cleansed. Among otherwise pretty flawless singing of the other works in the programme I felt there was a touch of insecurity in ensemble and balance here.

Giovanni Croce’s Miserere of 1599, 40 years before Allegri, came from Venice (Josquin’s was from Ferrara, not far away), with the sounds of the Gabrielis in the background, and here was the precursor of the sort of high soprano ecstasy, with richer harmonies cultivated by Allegri. It was also curious, not that it seemed to affect the mood or richness of the musical setting, that the Psalm text was paraphrased as a sonnet by Francesco Bembo, whose name only calls up painters.

The Gesualdo setting
Then came what for me was the third most interesting piece on the programme (after the Allegri and the James MacMillan), the imaginative and original setting by Carlo Gesualdo, more famous for a certain violent episode in his life. There’s no better account than by music critic Alex Ross (have you read his The Rest in Noise?) in The New Yorker – (

His music is generally said to be ‘ahead of its time’ by anything up to three or four centuries (and four would bring it up to the present decade). The words employed as evidence are ‘chromaticism’ and ‘dissonance’; neither is to be remarked upon today; the dissonance amounts to momentary departures from an expected harmonic cadence which are rather delicious. It was splendidly sung, all these little touches exposed with clarity and wit; with the excellent Paul Stapley, as in the Allegri, singing the plainsong verses, falsobordone (French: fauxbourdon) = false bass, I believe they are called. Nevertheless, the music follows a repeated pattern which allows the senses to relax each time the surprise comes round in the shape of a sort of rise in the tonality of the treble voices.

MacMillan – the today setting
Finally, the strong and arresting Miserere of James MacMillan who, I suppose, has a special authority today, as a confirmed Catholic. Men and women take the lines of the Psalm in turn, with women seeming to have more of the running, though the men are given an emphatic “Ecce…” – behold, in line 5. The energetic rhythm seems to flow naturally from the intrinsic rhythm of the Latin, a language which, spoken with resonance and fluency, has that unparalleled power, supported by a wonderful literature, that made the language survive remarkably, till my generation – the last, I fear, to have been in a state secondary school where perhaps a third of the boys in the third, fourth and fifth forms learned Latin.

Again at the ‘Libera me de sanguinibus…’, the great shout of anguish had dramatic power, that was quickly softened by the overlapping of men’s and women’s parts; as the end approached  the dynamics rose and fell with moments of ecstasy and spiritual entreaty.

When Simon Ravens founded The Tudor Consort back in 1986, the choir attracted overflowing, rock-concert style houses, such was the impact of his engrossing pre-concert talks with imaginative programming, often through liturgical reconstructions in a dramatically striking manner. No subsequent director has quite matched Ravens’ flair and charisma, but Michael Stewart, in his own way, is recapturing something of the excitement of that time which had the effect of raising audience numbers for most choirs, and inspiring the formation of new ones. This splendid concert and the size of the audience perhaps presages a real choral renaissance and more adventures to come.


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