Allegri’s Miserere in the Sistine Chapel

Allegri’s Miserere in the Sistine Chapel
Graham O’Reilly
Boydell Press, Woodbridge
Hardback, 388 pages, 234x156mm, ISBN13: 978 1 78327 487 1

`Allegri`s Miserere` in the Sistine Chapel

The approach of Holy Week seems an appropriate moment to publish this rather delayed review of this study of the Allegri Miserere – one of the most loved, discussed and performed pieces of classical music. It was composed in the 1630s for the exclusive use of the Papal Choir during Holy Week in the Sistine Chapel. Much of its fame comes from the story of the young Mozart transcribing it from memory after a single hearing – something that was specifically forbidden by the Vatican authorities under pain of excommunication. The Miserere that we hear performed today has little resemblance to either the original composition or the early methods of performance. This book gives a detailed and readable account of the Miserere‘s performance history in the Sistine Chapel and beyond, notably during the peak of its popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the history of the version commonly heard today – the “English Miserere”.

Miserere mei, Deus, (Psalm 50) is one of the seven penitential psalms associated with the days before Easter. Allegri’s setting was written for two choirs, of five and four voices, who sing alternately before combining for the final 9-part verse. It was sung during the Tenebrae services of Holy Week. From its composition in the 1630s Allegri’s quickly became the favourite Miserere, mainly because of the ornaments used by the singers of the Papal Choir – including ‘THE ornament’. But it was only sung on one day out of the three of Tenebrae, and the Misereres heard on the others (by Anerio, Naldini, Scarlatti) didn’t include ornaments, which left visitors who had come to hear them disappointed. So in 1711 Tommaso Bai wrote a new version, carefully tailored to Allegri’s harmonies, so that the same ornaments could be used.  The two settings were combined later in the 18th-century in a version that remained in use until the late 19th-century dissolution of the Papal Chapel, one of many changes that followed the annexation of the Papal States by the fledgling Kingdom of Italy.

The aspect which gives the piece its particular magic (and creates the most discussion) is the use of ornamentation, reflecting the late Renaissance practice of improvised embelishment. In 1892, the last maestro di capella of the chapel, Domenico Mustafa, produced a score reflecting how he remembered performing the work in the early 19th century. He used Bai’s setting and one of Allegri’s verses, but added his own detailed notes and annotations indicating details of performance that generally reflected the style of early 19th century opera.

In this well-produced book, Graham O’Reilly, founder and conductor of the French-based Ensemble William Byrd, leads us through the complex background of the piece, taking a step-by-step approach to unravelling the story as the piece passes through the 16th to the 19th centuries, culminating in the generally accepted 20th century version, which he christens the English Miserere.

Perhaps the most important parts of the book come in the latter pages, with a detailed résumé of the available sources, an analysis of the current English Miserere and the presentation of a new performing edition, with discussion of various details of performance practice including pitch, dynamics, use of rubato, ornamentation and the appropriate singing forces. The new edition can be compard to the Mustafa/Bai/Allegri version, which is also presented in full.

This is an essential read for amateur and professional choral singers and directors, but is also a good read for music lovers, giving an inspiring insight into the complxities of musical transmission and the devlopment of musical interpretation through the ages. If you are inspired to perform the work with your own choir, buying the book gives you the right to buy as many copies as you need of the editions in the book at “favourable rates” from ShorterHouse editions at

Introduction – Myth and reality
Part One: The 16th and 17th centuries
1. Context
2. Creation
3. Transformation
Part Two: The 18th century
4. Show business
5. 18th century sources 1 – Blainville and Mozart
6. 18th century sources 2 – The Paris and Manchester manuscripts
7. ‘Con suoi rifiorimente, come si deve eseguire‘ – What the earliest ornamented manuscripts show
Part Three: The 19th century
8. The Papal Choir in the 19th century 1 – Giuseppe Baini
9. 19th century sources 1 – British Library Add. MS 31525 and related manuscripts
10. 19th century sources 2 – Alfieri’s Il Salmo Miserere of 1840
11. The Papal Choir in the 19th century 2 – Domenico Mustafà
12. 19th century sources 3 – The Vatican manuscript of Domenico Mustafà
Part Four: Performing the Miserere in the 20th century
13. The current ‘popular’ version of the Allegri Miserere: the ‘English Miserere’
14. Introduction to the editions
15. Aspects of performance practice 1 – Performing pitch
16. Aspects of performance practice 2 – Expression
17. Aspects of performance practice 3 – Performing forces
18. Conclusion
Part Five: Appendices, editions and notes