American Culture

TunesDay: "Have mercy on me, O God"

by Djerrid

Few pieces of music have the historic weight and significance of “Miserere mei, Deus“. It was composed by Gregorio Allegri in the 1630’s for the Vatican. And there it stayed for over 125 years.

The Vatican decreed that it would only be performed during the Holy Week before Easter and only in the Sistine Chapel. Anyone who transcribed it or performed it elsewhere would suffer excommunication. From that point on the allure spread and many made it a point to attend the services so they could hear that song. A few pale imitations snuck out but no one was able to capture the balance and beauty of the harmonies.

A century later, 14-year-old Wolfgang Mozart was touring Italy with his father and ended up at Rome for Easter. After attending service and hearing it once he was able to write it down. He went back and heard it performed a few days later with his notes tucked under his hat and made some minor corrections. In a letter, his father then wrote, “You have often heard of the famous Miserere in Rome, which is so greatly prized that the performers in the chapel are forbidden on pain of excommunication to take away a single part of it, to copy it or to give it to anyone. But we have it already. Wolfgang has written it down…”

A year later it was published in England, but was it due to Mozart’s cribbing? More of the mystery of its release is prodded here.

“Miserere” was performed with two choirs in separate parts of the Chapel so that one accentuated the simple melody of the other.  So the acoustics and the setting made it such a distinct experience. But even if you were to rent out the Sistine Chapel for a day and brought in the Kings College Chapel Choir, you would still not be able to hear it as it was originally performed because the type of singer needed no longer exists.

The most distinctive feature of “Miserere” is the incredibly high top C solo (first found at 1:40 in the above vid). This was traditionally performed by a castrato.

Yup, that word is just what it sounds like. Castrati were talented boys who were castrated in order to preserve their angelic voices. The lack of testosterone caused their ribs to grow overly long and this increased lung capacity driven through a child’s vocal chords coupled with intense training produced those controlled high Cs.

How intense was their training? Wikipedia fills us in:

“The regime of one singing school in Rome (c. 1700) consisted of one hour of singing difficult and awkward pieces, one hour practicing trills, one hour practicing ornamented passaggi, one hour of singing exercises in their teacher’s presence and in front of a mirror so as to avoid unnecessary movement of the body or facial grimaces, and one hour of literary study; all this, moreover, before lunch. After, half-an-hour would be devoted to musical theory, another to writing counterpoint, an hour copying down the same from dictation, and another hour of literary study. During the remainder of the day, the young castrati had to find time to practice their harpsichord playing, and to compose vocal music, either sacred or secular depending on their inclination.”

The only castrato to ever record their voice was Alessandro Moreschi, but the recording was horrible. To get a better taste of their unique voice, I’d suggest renting the movie Farinelli – or better yet, just watching the trailer.

Miserere is Latin for “mercy”, which the singer always seeks. The haunting lyrics of despair and begging for forgiveness are drawn from Psalms. A sample from the translation:

Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.
Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Remember that this was sung for decades during the most holy time of the year on the most sacred of grounds. This was important to the Church; the assumption that we are not only born with sin but conceived in it as well. And the only recourse is to subjugate ourselves to God, ask for his forgiveness and place on the alter one’s heart and spirit:

Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

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