A Bright Light Piercing Open My Heart

Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere Mei Deus (choral setting of 51st Psalm)

     I first heard this piece many years ago on a cassette recording called Mysterium Magnum, or something like that. It was a collection of various choral works from many different composers, but each piece was a particularly powerful example of the mysterious beauty of mixed voices with little or no instrumental accompaniment. It’s not only the interweaving of the 4 to 6 parts sung by groups of 6 to 30 singers, but the amazing harmonic  overtones that occur as each vocal part creates ripples that merge with those of the other voices, especially when recorded in some of the great cathedrals.

     Gregorian chant is a particularly good example of this effect.  The notes written by the composer and sung by the singers do not include these harmonic overtones as part of the written score. But they are anticipated and the ancient styles of choral singing were designed to bring these overtones out in the performance.  It’s something that cannot be written down, but is understood by the composers and singers of this style of music.

     Tonight while driving to the store after being home sick for several days with the flu, Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere Mei Deus suddenly pulled me back to life when I turned on the car radio and there it was.  I parked and left the car running until the piece completed.  It was one of those amazing experiences that happens every so often when a piece pops out of the radio right when you needed it, a serendipitous moment of synchronistic magic.  At the end of the piece the KING-FM dj told this story which I had not previously known:

Sometime after Gregorio Allegri composed this setting of the 51st Psalm, around 1638, the work thereafter was protected and a prohibition was placed on its use outside the Sistine Chapel at the appointed time. Chapel regulations forbid its transcription; indeed, the prohibition called for excommunication for anyone who sought to copy the work.

Sistine Chapel

Nevertheless, the young 12 year-old Wolfgang Mozart travelling with his father arrived in Rome on April 11, 1770, just in time for Easter. As with any tourist, they visited St. Peter’s to celebrate the Wednesday Tenebrae and to hear the famous Miserere sung at the Sistine Chapel. Upon arriving at their lodging that evening after the performance, the young Mozart sat down and wrote out from memory the entire piece. On Good Friday, he returned, with his manuscript rolled up in his hat, to hear the piece again and make a few minor corrections.  At some point after this, Mozart’s transcription of Allegri’s Miserere was performed (not in the Sistine Chapel) and after that the young composer was summoned by the Pope!  You can imagine this young man, not yet established as a composer, shaking in his boots having to go and meet with the Pope.  But according to this story, when Mozart arrived at his private meeting with the Pope, the Pope smiled and said “You are a genius, go home and write music!”  And after that this Pope removed the prohibition on the Miserere being restricted and it was thereafter allowed to be performed anywhere.

     Later this evening I purchased a collection of the Essential Tallis Scholars choral works and excerpted the final minute of this glorious 12 minute piece of music.

I’ve attached a .wav file of that minute to this post for you to listen to below. Then I looked up the Miserere and found some further interesting stories in an article on  classical.net. You might be interested in the history of the use of the 51st Psalm in early choral music during the 16th and 17th centuries and some other information in this article on the improvisational nature of the performance styles used by choirs back then such as falsobordone and counterpoint super librum. The link to this article is here:

http://www.classical.net/music/comp.lst/works/allegri/miserere.php      

     But what I really wanted to share with you about this piece is what this particular passage seems to do whenever I listen to it. From the very first time I heard it years ago, and again tonight, the quiet passage I’ve included below in the .wav file is a simple chordal progression in the old gregorian chant style, but then the soprano soloist soars up to a very high C and descends in a beautiful melody that is at once so simple, but so effective, so evocative, it is like a bright light piercing open my heart.  It is as if some angel from on high somewhere directs some kind of angelic beam of energy directly into the center of my heart, piercing it open with a feeling that is incredibly beautiful, but not entirely without pain, and it is the realization at that moment that pain and beauty, sadness and joy,  are intimately related and in an instant I realize something, or remember something profoundly important, but as quickly as the passage ends, the message vanishes.  Thankfully, the passage repeats 4 or 5 times in the full 12 minute piece, so each time you get to grok/remember/realize/feel/experience the beautiful intensity of this moment of musical truth.  This is a great example of the way music can convey wordless messages directly into our being, and these old masters of sacred choral music really understood how to use the sounds, the harmonies, the overtones, the voices, to express these timeless truths.

     Of course the music is not actually wordless, the words are sung in latin, and perhaps knowing the exact translation of the latin phrases from the 51st Psalm being sung would shed more light on the meaning being conveyed by the music.  But even without knowing that translation, the sound of the voices singing in the ancient language is enough all by itself to work incredible magic.

     This passage is the final minute of the 12 minute Miserere Mei Deus performed here by the Tallis Scholars.  This excerpt starts out very quietly and moves into the soaring soprano melody I described above, but then in the remaining 30 seconds of the piece the full choir returns and it is fairly loud, so don’t turn up your volume too much when you listen to this.  The choir resolves the exquisite intermingling vocal parts into a final chord that shifts keys on the very last note and seems to take the whole angelic spiritual energy from on high and grounds it at the end into the physical reality of our being.  You will want to hear the entire piece, which you can find easily enough on Napster, or Rhapsody, or whatever you use.  Look for “Allegri’s Miserere”.  Click on this link to listen to the 1 minute .wav file;            Allegri Miserere Excerpt

The Tallis Scholars

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About Tim McKamey

Founder of Sound Possibilities - Practitioner of Music, Song, Folklore & Musicology - songwriter - guitarist - guitar instructor - web design - videography
This entry was posted in Music and Spirit, Music History, Music in Society, Music Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Bright Light Piercing Open My Heart

  1. Tim McKamey says:

    Well, now that I have researched the text of Psalm 51, its no wonder that the musical passage described above affected me the way it did. As I said, Gregorio Allegri’s musical magic is powerful enough without even knowing the translation from the latin. But now that I know, well, like I said, no wonder it struck me like a “bright light piercing open my heart”.

    If any of you out there are biblical scholars, please by all means feel free to jump in here with any corrections as needed to the story as follows. I am but a humble scribe of cyberspace, strong on interest, but a little weak on formal academic experience. But as far as I can tell, Psalm 51 (Greek numbering Psalm 50) is, as Allegri’s musical setting proclaims, a Miserere, one of the Penetential Psalms, beginning with the words; “Have mercy on me, O God.” (See, already you can tell this is not going to be a happy story.) The story according to 2 Samuel 11 is that King David arose from his bed one night in Jerusalem and walked out on the roof of the king’s house and from there he happened to see a very beautiful woman washing herself. He inquired of the servants who she might be and was told that she was Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. David then sent his messengers to Bathsheba, she came to him, and they spent the night together. Later when Bathsheba found that she had conceived a child from that encounter she told David about it. There are a couple different stories about what David did at this point, both only lay more shame on an already regretful act. One is that he tried to trick Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, that the child was his, Uriah’s. When that failed, David had Uriah put in the forefront of a battle where he was certain to be slain, which he was. Bathsheba mourned for her husband when she learned he was dead. When the mourning passed, David sent for her and she became his wife.

    So, Psalm 51, the Miserere, is King David’s acknowledgement of his iniquities and his plea to God for mercy after being visited by the prophet Nathan who reprimanded him for the seduction of Bathsheba. The first child she bore David, while still married to Uriah, died a few days after birth, apparently struck with a severe illness. David took this as being his punishment from God. A later child Bathsheba bore her new husband David, turns out to be none other than the future King Solomon! I’m sure there must be generations of implications wound up in that birth, enough to keep scholars busy for centuries. I’ll leave that for the time being…

    There have been numerous musical versions of this Psalm 51, Miserere, the earliest known polyphonic setting being in the 1480s by Johannes Martini. Another by Josquin des Prez in 1503 was likely inspired by the prison meditation ‘Infelix ego’ by Girolamo Savanarola who had been burned at the stake (see, I told you this is not a happy story) just five years prior to des Prez being so moved to compose his Miserere. Other versions have been composed by Orlande de Lassus, Palestrina, Gabrieli, Gesualdo, Vivaldi’s was lost with only two introductory motets remaining, and Miserere’s have also been done by J.S. Bach and Giovanni Pergolesi.

    But it is Georgio Allegri’s Miserere from the 1630s, that stands apart from the rest as one of the most moving pieces of music I personally have ever encountered. Particularly the high soprano solo part as described in the ‘Bright Light Piercing Open My Heart’ post above and available for you to listen to in the attached .wav file in that post. Knowing the real story now has not lessened my enthusiasm any, indeed it has only deepened my appreciation for Allegri’s skills as a composer. His ability to arrange 8 to 16 voices in the falsobordone style of gregorian chant is a clear example of the true Power of Limits as described in the book that bears that title on the proportional harmonies in nature, art and architecture by Gyorgi Doczi (Shambala Publ., 2005), one of my all time favorite reference books on sacred geometry. You won’t find anything about gregorian chant or Allegri’s music in Doczi’s book, I am drawing that conclusion on my own, but I think it is justified. It’s all about being able to generate great beauty (energy, meaning, truth, wisdom, etc..) within the strict confines of a very limited structural context. This is where we need to look if we truely wish to learn how to do more with less.

    • Tim McKamey says:

      Thanks to a recent performance on BBC by The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers, and this posting of the video at The Western Confucian;
      http://orientem.blogspot.com/2011/04/gregorio-allegris-miserere-mei-deus_20.html
      I was able to track down the exact verses of Psalm 51 where the soprano generates white light from high C in the musical passage noted above, which repeats I think 4 times throughout the piece. The video displays the text from Psalm 51 as The Sixteen perform. The soprano solo passage is only a vocal recitative on the vowel ‘ah’, but in each case it adds a plaintive cry to the text just sung by the rest of the choir, underscoring David’s struggle to ‘get right with God’, to be cleansed of his iniquity, asking God to not despise his broken heart, and furthermore to plead with God to not take it out on Jerusalem.

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