A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Allegri, Gregorio

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ALLEGRI, Gregorio, a beneficed priest attached to the cathedral of Fermo, and a member of the same family which produced Corregio the painter, was also a musical composer of much distinction. He was born at Rome about the year 1580, and was a pupil of G. M. Nanini. During his residence at Fermo he acted as chorister and composer to the cathedral. Certain Mottetti and Concerti which he published at this time had so great a repute that they attracted the notice of Pope Urban VIII, who appointed him, on Dec. 6, 1629, to a vacancy among the Cantori of the Apostolic Chapel. This post he held until his death, in 1652.

His name is most commonly associated with a 'Miserere' for nine voices in two choirs, which is, or was till lately, sung annually in the Pontifical Chapel during the Holy Week, and is held to be one of the most beautiful compositions which have ever been dedicated to the service of the Roman Church. There was a time when it was so much treasured that to copy it was a crime visited with excommunication. Not that its possession was even thus confined to the Sistine Chapel. Dr. Burney got a copy of it.[1] Mozart took down the notes while the choir were singing it, and Choron, the Frenchman, managed to insert it in his 'Collection' of pieces used in Rome during the Holy Week.[2] Leopold I, a great lover of music, sent his ambassador to the Pope with a formal request for a copy of it, which was granted to him. The emperor had the work performed with much ceremony by a highly qualified choir at Vienna. The effect, however, was so disappointing that he conceived himself the victim of a trick upon the part of the copyist, and complained to the Pope that some inferior composition had been palmed off upon him. The fact was that the value of this curious and very delicate work depends almost entirely upon its execution. It is simple almost to the point of apparent insipidity, and it only assumes its true character when sung by the one choir which received and has retained as traditions the original directions of its author. In the Sistine Chapel it has ever commanded the enthusiasm of musicians for a certain indescribable profundity of sadness, and a rhythmical adaptation to the words about which it is woven, but which, in spite of its apparent simplicity, are so difficult to produce that no fraud was necessary to account for the imperial failure at Vienna. The effects of Allegri's 'Miserere' are like the aroma of certain delicate vintages which always perishes in transit; although in Rome, to turn to a metaphor of Baini's, they have never shown a wrinkle of old age.[3]

As the man's music so was the man. Adami of Bolsena says that he was of a singular gentleness and sweetness of soul and habit. His doors were constantly thronged by poor, who sought him as much for the more impalpable sustenance of his kindness as for the more material fruits of his bounty; and his leisure hours were commonly spent among the prisons and pest-houses of Rome. He died at a ripe old age, on Feb. 18, 1652 [App. p.521 "1662"], and was laid in S. Maria in Vallicella, in the burial-place belonging to the Papal Choir.

His published works consist chiefly of two volumes of 'Concertini' and two of 'Motetti,' all printed during his lifetime by Soldi of Rome. Some stray Motetti of his were, however, inserted by Fabio Constantini in a collection intituled, 'Scelta di Motetti di diversi eccellentissimi autori, a due, tre, quattro, e cinque voci.' But the Archives of S. Maria in Vallicella are rich in his manuscripts, as are also the Library of the Collegio Romano and the Collection of the Papal Choir. Kircher too in his 'Musurgia' has transcribed an extract from his instrumental works; and the library of the Abbé Santini contained the scores of various pieces by him, including 'Magnificats,' 'Improperia,' 'Lamentazioni,' and 'Motetti.' A 'Veni Sancte Spiritus' by him for four voices is included in the 'Musica divina' of Proske (Liber Motettorum, No. lx.) [App. p.521 "See also ii. 336a.]

[ E. H. P. ]

  1. Most probably through Santarelli the singer.
  2. It will be found in the 'Sacred Minstrelsy' of the late Mr. W. Ayrton. (Parker.)
  3. 'Senza aver contratto ruga di vecchiezza.'