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The R.C., Revisited: Psalm 51 and Holy Week

March 29, 2010

The Miserere of Gregorio Allegri (above, left) has become one of the landmark pieces of late-Renaissance1 choral polyphony2.  Its history is a fascinating one, not least because the version of this most Roman of Roman pieces most commonly known and sung today is (believe it or not) more Anglican than Roman.
How so? The video series below does a wonderful job of narrating the tale, but in short, the trail leads from the Sistine Chapel through Wolfgang Mozart, Dr. Charles Burney (above, right), Felix Mendelssohn, and Ivor Atkins.  We have, finally, Sir David Willcocks and the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, to thank for the dissemination and popularity of this profoundly and penitentially beautiful work3.

The following programme, spliced into four sections (thank you, YouTube), is a very well-put-together documentary of the history behind this celebrated composition. If the reader prefers to skip directly to the performance, it is to be found on the third and fourth videos.

Maestro Christophers hints at the famous embellishments carried out by the Sistine soloists, but his singers do not attempt to recreate them (beyond the now-institutionalized treble high C).  A number of ensembles have, however, been even more radical in their reinterpretation of the work, attempting to recreate the vocal ornamentation. Perhaps the most musically successful of these is that achieved by the French ensemble A Sei Voci. For a different take, then, we offer their rendition (split into two sections), representing perhaps the more “Roman” version of the Psalm. The performance begins very straightforward, but on each successive verse the embellishments become increasingly intricate. The listener will be rewarded for their patience by the end of the psalm:

1Technically, the piece is an example of the early-seventeenth century Roman school, a conservative enclave in the early Baroque period.
2That is, a musical texture consisting of a number of independent melodic voices sounding simultaneously.
3And their landmark 1963 (English-language) recording, featuring then-treble Roy Goodman (now a prominent conductor in the British Historically-Informed Performance movement), which can be found here.

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