On Ash Wednesday this year I was in Rome with pilgrims from the Ordinariate. At the last minute I got a ticket to the Papal Mass at S. Sabina, and so was able to hear the Miserere by Gregorio Allegri, sung by the Sistine Chapel Choir. We are spoiled in England by having so many fantastic church choirs, and I’m glad to say that the state of music in Catholic churches and cathedrals seems to be constantly improving. But to hear the Sistine choir singing this particular motet, which was written for them in the early 17th century, was a profound moment.
The Allegri has a bizarre and convoluted history which I am afraid I can’t quite follow. Basically, though, what we hear sung across the world is not what Allegri wrote, but rather what Mozart and Liszt and Mendelssohn remembered and transcribed from memory after hearing performances. These performances, though, included the embellishments added by the virtuosic musicians of the day: the famous top C is probably not original. If you want to get something of an idea of what it may have sounded like, you can listen to the excellent 2001 Ensemble William Byrd recording – but be warned that every performance you hear after it will be grey, and dull, and flat.
Why mention this in the midst of the Easter season? Because tonight I hope to go to Westminster Cathedral to hear the Sistine Chapel Choir in concert – a very rare occasion, and their first ever concert in Britain. The concert is free and, whatever the repertoire ends up being (I have to say I have no idea), it will be a little piece of musical history, and a good reminder of the continuing importance of music in the celebration of the sacred liturgy.
I have a secret hope (well, it was secret) that one day there’ll be a Choir School for the Principal Church of the Ordinariate – but, well, we’ll just have to wait and see…