Easter 2024

09 March 2023
Dancing about the architecture: Allegri and Howells and frogs

The conventional wisdom is that there's something architectural about the Allegri Miserere.

Not as many of us would even know Gregorio Allegri's name if it weren't for this piece and the way it's been passed down to us. The music he wrote has been so transmogrified through time, additive variation, and the stuff of legend, that it has become something else entirely. What began life as an Italian piece for Holy Week has become something rather different: an Anglican piece for Ash Wednesday; a concert work for really excellent choirs; the Ravel's Bolero of sacred music. When we refer to this work by Allegri we're really referring to a piece that incorporates work by Tommaso Bai and the hands of many editors.

So the work as we now have it and as it is now known and loved around the world is far from being the Miserere that Allegri would have recognised. The tragedy is not only is Allegri's original version long lost, but the manner of ornamented and embellished performance is also long lost.

—Graham Abbott, 

The piece is formulaic, relying on the structure of the verses of Psalm 51. Undergirding the structure of the piece is the idea of singing Psalm 51 to a plainsong psalm tone (Grove's Dictionary of Music suggests that historical performances of in Allegri's may have chanted these verses on a strict monotone, which would be congruent with Holy Week practice). Allegri provides two alternating settings for the odd-numbered verses: one for five voices, and one for four voices. The break in the formula occurs naturally and inevitably at the end: in the final verse (verse 20), these two choirs combine, forming a nine-voice texture. 

But more than formulaic, the piece is architectural. Its steady volleying between the different forces, which we can safely assume to be different choirs (since they must combine to form a full nine parts at the end), creates its own kind of musical architecture. 

In modern times, it seems customary to separate the choirs from each other, a practice that stems from an early recording (in English!) from King's College, Cambridge. An exaggerated distance for concert performance, or even liturgy, is not uncommon, with the smaller choir (usually one to a part) being placed some distance away: perhaps the high altar, or a side chapel, or a rear gallery. So in these performances, the Allegri Miserere reinforces its own structural architecture with use of the physical space. The architecture of the building always plays a role in musical acoustics, but here it plays out in a more physicalized, dramatic way. 

In this very popular video sung by Tenebrae, there are three locations used, with the tenor soloist singing the chant verses from the triforium (I always worry a bit about his safety when I watch this).

Would these architectural approaches have been possible in the Sistine Chapel? I can find no record that it was (but sometimes you hear choral conductors claim that "this is how it was done"!). And my assumption is that it is unlikely that singers would have been permitted outside of their designated choir loft. 

If an effect of "distance" was to be achieved within the choir loft, it could have been possible by placing the four-voice choir behind the five-voice one, though in this confined space, issues of sight lines and balance for the final combined verse become an issue. And it is doubtful if the choirmaster of the Sistine Chapel at the time had access to the David Willcocks recording of 1957.

But leaving aside questions of historical performance practice (as we have likewise left behind many historical considerations when it comes to the music), the physical spacing of the various elements in the Allegri Miserere has become common practice, and it is effective. It is a manifestation of the formulaic structure already present in the piece. 

A performance (liturgical or otherwise) of the Miserere that takes advantage of the building can invite us to expand our perceptions to be more keenly aware of the space. But the value in this relies, to a large degree, on the building itself. 

A performance this week of the work by Tenebrae in the immense Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis had the smaller choir and tenor soloist be peripatetic, which, to this listener, was more of a distraction than a feature. Couldn't they decide where to sing from? Where are they now? How did they get over there? 

This brings us to another realization: however it was sung there, the Miserere that stems from Allegri is architectural in another sense: it was written for a specific building. This specificity of location is heightened by the legends around safeguarding this piece—and threats of ex-communication for any who dared take it outside the walls of the Sistine Chapel! The Allegri Miserere was a piece that was meant to be sung in one place. 

The idea of writing a piece of music for a specific space is one often encountered in church music. Churches are unique and sometimes idiosyncratic buildings. The instruments and performing forces found therein can vary widely. So it is common for pieces of church music to have their genesis in a particular liturgical space. But with the ideas of transmission and publication, it is also often assumed that these pieces will be adapted to various performing situations. 

Perhaps we could just change our language. It might be more helpful nowadays to refer not to the Allegri Miserere but to the Sistine Miserere, or the King's College Miserere, much the way that we do to Herbert Howells's St. Paul's Service, Gloucester Service, New College Service, St. John's Service, and so on. 

Howells was particularly keen to write music that suited the space that had commissioned it. More than that, Howells seems to have been genuinely inspired by the buildings. There's the sublimity of St. Paul's, the airiness of Gloucester, the directness of New College, the darkness of St. John's, and so on. 

A consummate craftsman, within his works, Howells carves out not only the floorplan and an immersive structure but all manner of ornamentation. David Willcocks compared Howells to 
[…] the medieval craftsman, who takes enormous pains to fashion in stone some angel right up in the triforium of a cathedral — where it will never be seen, but he did it just for the love of it. Sometimes I feel that Herbert Howells lavishes his love in his music by having some felicitous little counterpoint in some inner part which may never be heard — but he knows it’s there., h/t Some Definite Service: The Unbelief, yet Half-Religion, of Herbert Howells (I)

It is, all of it, food for thought. So much sacred music is profoundly "structural." In a divine creative sense, God's blessing bestows order (conversely, cursing bestows disorder), so the very forms of music can convey God's blessing to us. The various spaces in which we worship convey their own sense of God's grace and presence. 

And in all of it, there is joy in the detail. One of my favorite features of Christ Church Cathedral, Indianapolis, are two tiny bronze frogs near the baptismal font–creatures so small that it would be possible not to notice them even if you attended the cathedral your whole life. Like Howells's own tiny joyous details, there is, amidst the waters of Baptism–the waters of chaos and then creation–a divine herpetological rejoicing included in the architecture just for the love of it.

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