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Gregorio Allegri and his Miserere
Il Miserere gave fame to Gregorio Allegri, who was composed at the time of his service for the Sistine Chapel.

Gregorio Allegri, musician, composer and priest, was born in Rome of a modest family. He made his debut in music at the age of nine as a 'singing cherub' in the Schola Cantorum of San Luigi de 'Francesi. He was then in Fermo (1619), first as a cantor, then as a choirmaster and composer of the Cathedral. In 1629, under Urban VIII, he became a cantor in the Pontifical Music Chapel, the famous Sistine Chapel, where he could also carry out the most congenial activity of composer. From Pope Innocent X he obtained the appointment as director pro tempore of the Chapel, a position he held until his death in 1652.

Much of the Allegri's corpus of works was intended for the functions of the Sistine Chapel, and was therefore composed in the so-called Palestrina style or 'observed' style: cultured music written for a cappella choir, which followed the dictates of the counterpoint that from Palestrina onwards characterized the musicians of the 'Roman schola'.

Very famous became his Miserere, also for the aura of mystery that surrounded it. According to tradition, he is the last of the twelve Miserere which were set to music and sung in the Sistine Chapel from 1514. It is a nine-part composition for two choirs, one for five and the other for four voices, based on Psalm 50 of the Bible, probably composed around 1630. It was performed in the Chapel Sistine with lights off during the morning as part of theoffice of Darkness of Holy Week. (L'Office of Darkness  it is recited in the three days preceding Easter, and is characterized by the extinguishing of the candles and a "earthquake" or "Strepitus", a moment at the end of the office when in total darkness the desks are beaten with books or hands, producing a noise.)

The notation of the original score, as it was possible to reconstruct it, was quite simple, with a fairly linear melody, but intense and dramatic. The performers were then given breadth and breath to that base - in fact, according to the practice of the time, the embellishments were not written, but were left to the skills and improvisation of individuals, or as in this case, to the uses and tradition of the chapel. musical, which handed them down from one singer to another.

Andrea Adami da Bolsena (1663 - 1742), cantor of the Sistine Chapel and author of the Observations to regulate the choir of the cantors of the Pontifical Chapel (Rome 1711), so he judged the passage: "Gregorio Allegri deserves eternal praise, who performed the Miserere with few notes, but so well modulated and better understood ... which captivates the mind of those who listen to it ".

The charm and the magnetic suggestion that the Miserere it aroused by Allegri, depended on the composer's art as much as on the extraordinary performance, rich in variations, diminutions, cadences and expressive effects. The passage was so extraordinary that the Pope, in order to preserve its uniqueness, forbade making copies or transcriptions under penalty of excommunication.

The resulting aura, together with the magnificence of the pontifical ceremonies, the pictorial richness and the uniqueness of the most famous chapel in the world, became an irresistible magnet for all travelers on the Grand Tour, who in planning the stages of their trip to Italy and their stay in Rome, they took care to get there in time to attend the celebrations of Holy Week. The young Mozart was no exception, in Italy with his father Leopold for the first of his three trips to the beautiful country (December 1769 - March 1771).

Fourteen-year-old Wolferl listened to the famous Miserere on 11 April 1770 during the office of the Darkness on Holy Thursday. The next day he transcribed it entirely from memory, returning to the Sistine Chapel on April 13, to listen to it again and be able to make small corrections.

In a letter dated 14 April 1770, Leopold Mozart wrote to his wife Anna Maria Pertl “In Rome we often hear about the famous Miserere, held in such consideration that the musicians of the chapel have been forbidden, under threat of excommunication, to take out even a single part of it, copy it or give it to anyone. But we already have it, Wolfgang wrote it down from memory, and, if our presence were not necessary at the moment of the execution, we would have already sent it to Salzburg. In fact, the way of performing it counts more than the composition itself, and therefore we will take it home ourselves. " He then reassured his anxious wife: “All of Rome and even the Pope himself knows that he has transcribed it. There is absolutely nothing to fear, on the contrary, the company has earned him great credit ”.

In fact, Mozart was not excommunicated, quite the contrary. A few months later, on July 5, Pope Clement XIV awarded him the Order of the Golden Speron, a papal chivalric order. His father Leopold had been right, and his letter among other things confirms the effective importance of 'manner of performing ' the famous Miserere.

The threat of excommunication fell, the piece was published in 1771 in London by Charles Burney (1726 - 1814), the famous English music historian and composer, but the Miserere it did not cease to arouse enthusiasm, curiosity and emotions, especially among German and French travelers.

Goethe mentions it in his Italienische Reise (Journey to Italy, 1816): "The music in the chapel is of unspeakable beauty: above all the Miserere of the Allegri. . . " . Madame De Stael echoes him: “A holy music, which leads to the renunciation of all earthly things. A verse resounds like heavenly music ... " , the philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi was totally shaken: "The earth trembled under my feet and for the first time in my life I envied the Pope and the cardinals who were quiet. I would have thrown myself to the ground to let off steam and cry and complain. Never else has he made such an impression on me. Celeste must be the soul of the man who found it ". Writer Wilhelm Heinse, author ofArdinghello(1787), an epistolary novel set in 16th-century Italy, he listened to Miserere twice and the emotion was such that he collapsed in tears, there were those who did not sleep for two nights, so much did Allegri's music resound in his soul, and who, lapidary, defined the piece "a creation of Truth ". The exaltation of the Romantics knew no bounds.

Some time earlier, Pietro Metastasio, the great poet of eighteenth-century opera, declared that he was "kidnapped in ecstasy " listening to the Miserere performed by the singers of the Sistine Chapel, while he was bored listening to it in Vienna, although sung by "Musicians and most excellent", which, however, could not compete with the brilliant interpretative tradition of the Roman chapel. The accuracy of the execution was in fact an essential requirement for the Miserere to arouse so much effect. The Pope's singers, sublime and very expert musicians, performed amazing variations, stops and trills, increasing the drama and intensity of the piece with counter-songs and pauses. The talent was combined with the power and beauty of the voices of these singers, Castrati as was also customary on the stages of the opera house, enhanced by the context of the ceremonies and the place.

In 1840 the Roman priest and musicologist Pietro Alfieri (1801 -1868) published an edition of Miserere by Allegri which also included ornamentation, with the aim of preserving and passing on the executive practice of the Sistine Chapel.

The Miserere by Allegri was performed in the Sistine Chapel until 1870. Suspended for 141 years, the composition was performed again only in March 2011 in the basilica of Santa Sabina sull'Aventino, for the celebration of Ash Wednesday in the presence of Pope Benedict XVI.

In 2015 the piece was recorded in the Sistine Chapel by Deutsche Grammophon and published on the cd Sing Domino. The Sistine Chapel and the music of the Popes.

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