Gregorio Allegri’s famous setting of Psalm 51, composed for Holy Week Tenebrae services at the Sistine Chapel, is thought to date from the 1630s, and other than the distribution of three authorised copies was for almost a century and a half expressly forbidden to be transcribed or sung anywhere else. According to a popular story (supported by family letters, but challenged by some historians), a 14-year-old Mozart heard it there in Holy Week 1770 and later wrote it down from memory, providing it eventually to English historian Charles Burney who had it published in London in 1771.
Neither Mozart nor Burney was ever censured in any way for defying the papal transcription ban and disseminating the precious Miserere – indeed in 1771 Mozart was summoned to Rome and awarded the Order of the Golden Spur for his feat of musical genius and service in propagating the Catholic faith. The mystique of the Allegri Miserere continues to this day, although beyond the Catholic tradition its veneration is now more associated with the beginning of Lent than the end.
Works of art are altered by the context of their reception – how might 21st century Presbyterians ‘hear’ the Miserere differently from, let’s say, 17th century Roman Catholics or for that matter 18th century Londoners? For one thing our denomination (not so much RPC itself) has tended to frown on service music sung in languages other than English – and particularly in Latin, the signature tongue of the Catholic church. Surprisingly the RPC Choir library has full sets of copies in both English and Latin, but I chose English for the power of the words not just comprehended, but actually heard in the language we speak.
Our usual length of Sunday service has some trouble accommodating 11-12 minute anthems designed to accompany rituals we no longer observe, so some form of abridgment seemed appropriate – but how exactly to do this? The beautifully balanced work shares the 19 verses of Psalm 51 between three sets of choral forces: male cantors, and two choral ensembles (one of which is often sung by soloists): so to maintain its regular, almost hypnotic sequence of these shifting forces verses must be omitted not individually, but in groups.
But which verses? Scripture in general, and the Psalms in particular, are frequently excerpted for our services both for reasons of length and for theological focus – but occasionally certain verses – penned by David in reference to his acts of sin with Bathsheba and her husband Uriah the Hittite – also grate against our general sensibilities (‘Behold, I was shapen in wickedness, and in sin hath my mother conceived me’, for example).
Through – and in at least some sense over – the Word and tradition of this piece runs its beautiful music, and the emotion it has the power to elicit. In this way at least despite the changes in us and its context, it functions as it always has, seeking to draw us closer to God, and Jesus’ work of salvation – and even if simple choral beauty is what draws you to it, as with many others, remember my old mantra of beauty as a kind of window upon truth.