These are the notes taken from the programme for this concert
Of all the music associated with the Sistine Chapel, within the Vatican in Rome, the Miserere of Gregorio Allegri must be by far the most famous. A mythology has grown up surrounding this piece of music which in its published state was nothing more than a very average psalm setting with alternating choirs singing in simple 4 part harmony using a technique known as falso bordone – that is chordal chanting in speech rhythm. There is certainly nothing special about it.
What made this setting of Psalm 51 so famous, however, were the added decorations that turned it into a legend. Right through to the 19th Century, the piece was so closely guarded that it was prohibited, on pain of excommunication, to remove a copy of the ornamented version form the Vatican. Yet myths abound, including one that Mozart wrote it down from memory on the inside of his hat!
Recently more careful research has indicated, however, that the version we now think of as the Allegri Miserere has very little to do with the way it would have been sung during the 16th and 17th Centuries. New versions have been produced that only add more speculation to an already sufficiently speculative piece. Our best loved white elephant just refuses to die! It has become a legend in its own right and for that reason we will present that spurious version with the legendary top Cs with no claims to authenticity, but no apologies either.
By far the most famous of Roman composers associated with the Sistine chapel was Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525 – 1594), who set the standard for classical polyphony. Born in the small hill town outside Rome from whence he took his name, he spent his boyhood singing in the Roman church of Santa Maria Maggiore. His first position was as organist, and later maestro di cappella in the cathedral of his birthplace, Palestrina. He later returned to Rome and was eventually admitted to the Cappella Sistina until new rules of celibacy for choir members forced him to leave. He was married by this time. He worked in several other Roman churches before settling at St Peter’s until his death. Even in his own time Palestrina was regarded with the highest esteem for the regular beauty of his polyphonic lines. Although he wrote a few Italian madrigals in his youth, he later renounced them as works of vanity and was to write nothing more than sacred music for the rest of his life. His output was considerable and covered every genre of liturgical music, but he is probably best known for his masses, and his Missa Papae Marcelli in particular.
Yet another myth surrounds this glorious work. Written at a time when the Counter Reformation Council of Trent was critical of music that obscured the words with complex counterpoint, he was reputed to have saved polyphony from abolition by writing a mass with such transparent counterpoint that the words were crystal clear, and then dedicating it to the pope. Again there may be some exaggeration, if not total inaccuracy in this story, but the fact remains that the mass was so popular that two other Roman composers made their own arrangements of it: Giovanni Francesco Anerio produced a 4 part version from Palestrina’s original 6 voices in 1619, and Francesco Soriano published a double choir, 8 – voice version in 1609. This is the version we will sing this evening.
Not a great deal is known about Soriano (1548 – 1621), but he may have studied with Palestrina, and he certainly also worked at the Cappella Giulia at St Peter’s. His reworking of Palestrina’s model is a fascinating study in stylistic evolution. Not only does he add two extra parts, but by writing for double choir he completely changes the sonority and gives the work a much more harmonic and early baroque sound. The music is often tossed rapidly between the two choirs, the harmonic structure is sometimes simplified, there is more ornamentation and the presence of the extra soprano part allows for a much brighter more luminous sound, particularly at cadences. Yet overall Palestrina’s voice is still clear in the elegant progressions, part writing and verbal clarity.
In the Salve Regina, however, we hear Soriano’s own style far more clearly. Here the expression of the words is as important as their clarity. This was a dominant feature of the seconda prattica – the new way of writing that was emerging in the early 17th century. There is real drama, echoing the musical experiments of the Florentine camerata that was paving the way towards solo song and opera, and clearly also influencing the writing of sacred polyphony too. Yet it would be a mistake to assume that Palestrina’s music was untouched by this movement. It is generally more subtle, but the gentle and expressive warmth seen in his several settings from the Song Of Songs, including Duo Ubera and Quae est ista shows a real involvement with the text.
The selection of motets in tonight’s programme will hopefully show the many sides of Palestrina, for he was far from being merely the great technician and portrayer of taste and style. His music has a vibrant energy, warmth and humanity that can speak to us now in these troubled times.
Deborah Roberts © March 2003