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02 Apr

Week 99: “Miserere Mei” by Gregorio Allegri

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Along with years of piano lessons, the experience that really fixed music as an important part of my life was being in a choir. It was a church choir, and I enjoyed it immensely, even though I was never really religious (the only time I remember praying was when I lost my brand new baseball glove and declared privately that I was prepared to go to church for the rest of my life if God would be so kind as to let me have it back).

There were no girls in the choir, which made it much less complicated for me, as I couldn’t figure out how to talk and breathe simultaneously in front of girls, much less sing in front of one. There was a nice friendship between the boys; it was a bit like being in Boy Scouts, except that instead of tying knots and building fires, we were singing choral music. (And, occasionally, building fires.)

But the main reason for the men & boys choir is the sound it creates. There’s a purity to the men & boys sound that can’t be produced otherwise, and in no other piece of music is this as evident as it is in Gregorio Allegri’s famous “Miserere”, performed in churches around the world at this time of year.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The chanting. Inserted between each verse, it gives the piece a middle-agey feel, despite the fact that it was written during the Baroque period.

2. The solo. When I was a choirboy, this piece was the Super Bowl of the choir calendar. And if you got the solo, with its incredible top C, you were the MVP. Funnily enough, I’ve heard that the top C wasn’t in the original score, but came into being as a result of a copyist’s error in the 1800s.

3. The harmonies. Although the soprano solo with its top C is exciting, each vocal line is beautiful in its own way. I wouldn’t use “haunting” or “mysterious” to describe many songs, but this one fits. The mystery was, for the first few centuries of the song’s existence, intentional, as the Vatican prohibited copies from being made, on threat of excommunication. The first unauthorized copy, apparently, was made in 1770 by a 14-year-old named Wolfgang Mozart, who heard the piece twice, imprinted it on his memory, and wrote it out later.

Recommended listening activity:

Sitting by a stained-glass window late in the afternoon.

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