Our next concert “Miserere” (Friday 3rd April, 8pm in Exeter College Chapel) includes two very different settings of the Miserere Mei text (Psalm 51).

Image of Michaelangelo Last JudgementThe first is the famous setting written in 1638 by the Italian composer Gregorio Allegri who was a priest and singer in the choir of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. The musical setting of the verses of the psalm alternates between a simple plainchant and a rich polyphony. The music is repeated several times with different words, which can create a hypnotic effect. The setting includes a stratospheric high C for a soprano.

The piece was written to be performed in the Sistine Chapel during holy week. The work established such a reputation that at some point the Pope forbade anyone from transcribing it on pain of excommunication!

All went well until 1770 when the Mozart family visited Rome. At this time the young musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus was 14.  He heard a performance of Miserere in the Sistine Chapel and proceeded to transcribe it note by note from memory. Soon the Mozarts met the music historian Dr Charles Burney who took the manuscript to London and published it in 1771.  So the secret was out!  (Fortunately for all of us, Wolfgang escaped excommunication.)

The Allegri setting is justly famous. If you like, you could close your eyes and try to imagine it being sung during Holy Week in a candlelit chapel…In modern times, the Miserere probably owes its fame in the choral music world and beyond to the recording made by the choir of King’s College Cambridge in 1963 under the direction of David Willcocks. The recording is in English whereas we’ll be singing it in the original Latin. I remember that my grandfather had a 7″ disk of this recording.  I don’t remember him liking any other choral music particularly, but he liked this!

So who would have the nerve to follow Allegri and write a fresh setting? Actually quite a few composers have done so. The other setting we’re going to perform is by the Scottish composer James MacMillan (b.1959).

MacMillan’s catholic faith is an integral part of who he is and what he writes. When he sets religious texts, you can tell that they have a deep meaning for him. This is a wonderful setting. He manages to do something that Allegri doesn’t do: he writes fresh music for each of the verses of this remarkable psalm, and so brings the meaning to life. Also, in a nod to Allegri, he sets some verses to plainchant.

Does it work? Judge for yourselves!

The work was written for Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, one of the UK’s leading choirs and strong advocates of MacMillan’s music. The first performance was in 2009. We’re grateful that they didn’t try to keep the work to themselves!

Tim Ault