We are a week away from Holy Week. Jitterbugs we become. A lot of things are to look forward to during Holy Week, so much so that some of us experience that obscene sensation called excitement in the preceding days. Solemn and ancient liturgies often coax out a rare species of dedication to prepare and rehearse that the saner of our lot would call cramming. Left and right issue forth the trousseaus of damask and brocade earmarked for the hallowed days. Ceremoneers inventory all their servers and assign days for service, and rescue Holy Week ceremony books gathering dust in the sacristy drawer. Santeros and camameros fret about the missing accessory of their gerenciales. And choirs delve into their repertoire, vast or not, handpicking the de rigueur and rethinking the workable.
Whether de rigueur or workable, one Holy Week piece commands admiration, exudes an unparalleled spellbinding appeal that has captivated, and continues to captivate for that matter, many souls, believers or not. It is Allegri’s Miserere, whose history is as interesting as the mystique surrounding its accessibility is mythological. Today, of course, when the ornamental technique so closely guarded by the papal choir has but faded, the restrictions having become quite likewise moot, or so we believe, we can experience its beauty from performances by historically-informed professional choirs.
The Miserere, of course, refers to psalm 50, the psalm whose first verse is chanted at the end of the Asperges every Sunday outside Eastertide. In the older praxis, the priest is expected to recite the entire psalm from memory while passing through the nave sprinkling blessed water. But this is not the part where the Miserere obtained its fame. Its stint in the Office of Darkness, the Officium Tenebrarum, what we fondly call tinieblas, is what poised it for the renown it was to acquire and accumulate. The tinieblas encompasses two canonical hours: matins and lauds. At the end of lauds, after the strepitus, that is, the din and crash signifying the astonishment of all creation at the death of the Son of God on the cross, those praying the Office, in a gesture of repentance and penance, recite the entirety of psalm 50, submissa voce and recto tono.
Up until 1955, the rubrics for its recitation indicated that it should be so. Choirs from many places of the world have for a long time chanted the psalm in ways equaling the respective variety of expertise and situation. After 1955, the reformers’ shears accidentally (or was it intentionally?) pruned it off the Office, so it officially ended its existence. But, for better or worse, fine taste and culture refused to submit to enforced desuetude. For that matter, since the Miserere gained fame during the Renaissance, we shall for the moment ignore its latter fate. The first time the Miserere was sung in the tinieblas was in the Sistine Chapel, in 1514, in the reign of Leo X. In the words of the then master of ceremonies of the Sistine Chapel, Paride de Grassi:
Office of Darkness, Wednesday, 1514. At the end the Cantors said the psalm Miserere with a new method: for they chanted the first verse while harmonising, and then alternately (with chant), which was well and devoutly executed.
Officium Tenebrarum. Die Mercurii 1514. In fine Cantores dixerunt psalmum Miserere cum novo modo ; nam primum versum cantarunt symphonizando, et deinde alternatim, quod fuit bene et devote.
The following day, however, the opposite transpired:
Thursday, Office of Darkness. The Cantors at the end, since they wanted to harmonise cleverly, rather than pleasingly, were not praised.
Die Iovis. Officium Tenebrarum. Cantores in fine cum vellent symphonizare doctius, quam suavius, non fuerunt laudati.
On Friday, the papal choir returned to the original composition. And so, having thus weighed and found wanting, this composition never even received the honour of being included in the Sistine Chapel’s collection of misereres. The positive result of this tentative attempt is the fact that it launched a three-century love story that climaxed with Gregorio Allegri. The milestones of this project, the significant plot developments of this love story, according to Giuseppe Baini, are below:
|1517||Costanzo Festa||2 verses of 4vv and 5vv|
|1533||Luigi Dentice||2 verses of 5vv and 4vv|
|1582||Francisco Guerrero||2 verses of 4vv|
|1588||Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina||2 verses of 4vv and 5vv|
|After 1601||Teofilo Gargano||2 verses of 4vv and 5vv|
|Giovanni Francesco Anerio||2 verses of 4vv and 5vv|
|Felice Anerio||2 verses of 4vv and 5vv with last verse of 9vv|
|Unknown||2 verses of 4vv|
|Giovanni Maria Nanino||2 verses by Palestrina with last verse of 9vv|
|after 1617||Sante Naldini||4vv with last verse of 8vv|
|after 1599||Ruggiero Giovanelli||4vv with last verse of 8vv|
|1638||Gregorio Allegri||5vv and 4vv with last verse of 9vv|
|1680||Alessandro Scarlati||4vv and 5vv with last verse of 9vv|
|1714||Tommaso Bai||5vv and 4vv, with last verse of 8vv|
|1768||Giuseppe Tartini||5vv and 4vv, with last verse of 8vv|
|1777||Pasquale Pisari||5vv and 4vv, with last verse of 9vv|
|1821||Giuseppe Baini||5vv and 4vv, with last verse of 9vv|
In due time, the sequence was fixed: Baini on Spy Wednesday, Bai on Maundy Thursday, Allegri on Good Friday. This was for the Sistine Chapel, where the pope attended the Office. The canons of the patriarchal basilica of Saint Peter, canonically bound to the recitation of the Office in choro, chanted their own Tenebrae wherein the Miserere of Valentino Fioravanti was sung on Spy Wednesday, Francesco Basili’s on Maundy Thursday, and Niccolò Antonio Zingarelli’s on Good Friday. But of all the masterpieces here mentioned, alone Allegri’s reached the zenith of legend.
Ut in omnibus laudetur Dominus.
 Giuseppe Baini, Memorie storico-critiche della vita e delle opere di Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1828 Rome).
 Charles Michael Baggs, The ceremonies of Holy-Week at the Vatican and St. John Lateran’s described (1839 Rome).