Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 2.djvu/348

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336
MISERERE.
 

in its effect, that Mendelssohn—the last man in the world to give way to unnatural excitement—describes this part of the Service as 'the most sublime moment of the whole.'

There is reason to believe that the idea of adapting the Miserere to music of a more solemn character than that generally used for the Psalms, and thus making it the culminating point of interest in the Service of Tenebræ, originated with Pope Leo X, whose Master of Ceremonies, Paride Grassi, tells us that it was first sung to a Fauxbourdon in 1514. Unhappily, no trace of the music used on that particular occasion can now be discovered. The oldest example we possess was composed, in 1517, by Costanzo Festa, who distributed the words of the Psalm between two Falsi-bordoni, one for four Voices, and the other for five, relieved by alternate Verses of Plain Chaunt—a mode of treatment which has survived to the present day, and upon which no later Composer has attempted to improve. Festa's Miserere is the first of a collection of twelve, contained in two celebrated MS. volumes preserved among the Archives of the Pontifical Chapel. The other contributors to the series were, Luigi Dentice, Francesco Guerrero, Palestrina, Teofilo Gargano, Francesco Anerio, Felice Anerio, an anonymous Composer of very inferior ability, Giovanni Maria Nanini[1], Sante Naldini, Ruggiero Giovanelli, and, lastly, Grogorio Allegri—whose work is the only one of the twelve now remaining in use. So great was the jealousy with which these famous compositions were formerly guarded, that it was all but impossible to obtain a transcript of any one of them. It is said, that, up to the year 1770, only three copies of the Miserere of Allegri were ever lawfully made—one, for the Emperor Leopold I; one, for the King of Portugal; and, a third, for the Padre Martini. Upon the authority of the lastnamed MS. rests that of nearly all the printed editions we now possess. P. Martini lent it to Dr. Burney, who, after comparing it with another transcription given to him by the Cavaliere Santarelli, published it, in 1790, in a work (now exceedingly scarce), called 'La Musica della Settimana Santa,' from which it has been since reproduced, in Novello's 'Music of Holy Week.' The authenticity of this version is undoubted: but it gives only a very faint idea of the real Miserere, the beauty of which depends almost entirely on the manner in which it is sung. A curious proof of this well-known fact is afforded by an anecdote related by Santarelli. When the Choristers of the Imperial Chapel at Vienna attempted to sing from the MS. supplied to the Emperor Leopold, the effect produced was so disappointing, that the Pope's Maestro di Capella was suspected of having purposely sent a spurious copy, in order that the power of rendering the original music might still rest with the Pontifical Choir alone. The Emperor was furious, and despatched a courier to the Vatican, charged with a formal complaint of the insult to which he believed himself to have been subjected. The Maestro di Capella was dismissed from his office: and it was only after long and patient investigation that his explanation was accepted, and he himself again received into favour. There is no reason to doubt the correctness of this story. The circumstance was well known in Rome: and the remembrance of it added greatly to the wonderment produced, nearly a century later, by a feat performed by the little Mozart. On the Fourth Day of Holy Week, 1770, that gifted Boy—then just fourteen years old—wrote down the entire Miserere, after having heard it sung, once only, in the Sistine Chapel. On Good Friday, he put the MS. into his cocked hat, and corrected it, with a pencil, as the Service proceeded. And, not long afterwards, he sang, and played it, with such exact attention to the traditional abellimenti, that Cristoforo, the principal Soprano, who had himself sung it in the Chapel, declared his performance perfect.

Since the time of Mozart, the manner of singing the Miserere has undergone so little radical change, that his copy, were it still in existence, would probably serve as a very useful guide to the present practice. Three settings are now used, alternately—the very beautiful one, by Allegri, already mentioned; a vastly inferior composition, by Tommaso Bai, produced in 1714, and printed both by Burney and Novello; and another, contributed by Giuseppe Baini, in 1821, and still remaining in MS. These are all written in the Second Mode, transposed; and so closely resemble each other in outward form, that, not only is the same method of treatment applied to all, but a Verse of one is frequently interpolated, in performance, between two Verses of another. We shall, therefore, confine our examples to the Miserere of Allegri, which will serve as an exact type of the rest, both with respect to its general style, and to the manner in which the far-famed Abellimenti are interwoven with the phrases of the original melody. These Abellimenti are, in reality, nothing more than exceedingly elaborate four-part Cadenze, introduced in place of the simple closes of the text, for the purpose of adding to the interest of the performance. Mendelssohn paid close attention to one which he heard in 1831, and minutely described it in his well-known letter to Zelter: and, in 1840, Alessandro Geminiani [App. p.719 "(i.e. Alfieri)"] published, at Lugano, a new edition (now long since exhausted) of the music, with examples of all the Abellimenti at that time in use. Most other writers seem to have done their best rather to increase than to dispel the mystery with which the subject is, even to this day, surrounded. Yet, the traditional usage is not so very difficult to understand; and we can scarcely wonder at the effect it produces, when we remember the infinite care with which even the choral portions of the Psalm are annually rehearsed by a picked Choir, every member of which is capable of singing a Solo.

The first Verse is sung, quite plainly, to a Faux-bourdon, for five Voices, exactly as it is printed by Burney, and Novello; beginning pianissimo, swelling out to a thrilling forte, and again taking up the point of imitation sotto voce.

  1. Nanini's work is little more than an adaptation of Palertrina's, with an additional Verse for nine Voices.