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This piece is the stuff of legends. Well, one particular legend, to be precise.
Mozart, when he was a teenager, so the story goes, once heard Allegri’s Miserere being performed in the Sistine Chapel. The precocious young composer apparently scurried home and wrote down the entire work from memory. Wonderful as the story sounds, it’s almost certainly apocryphal: it would have been highly likely that Mozart would have come across the Miserere before, given its already significant popularity in musical circles.
The work itself is a sublime nine-voice setting of Psalm 51: Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misercordiuam tuam (‘Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness’). As you listen to the heavenly sound of each interweaving voice, it’s fascinating to think that Allegri composed the piece for two separate choirs: one of four voices, and the other of five.
Allegri was a devout catholic, having been trained as a priest, and he worked with the Vatican’s Papal Choir right up until his death. Karl Proske, former Canon of Ratisbon Cathedral, described the composer as a man whose music was imbued with his religious faith and personal sense of justice, saying Allegri was ‘a model of priestly peace and humility, a father to the poor, the consoler of captives and the forsaken, a self-sacrificing help and rescuer of suffering humanity’.
Choir of New College, Oxford; Edward Higginbottom (conductor). Erato: 3984 295882.
Illustration: Mark Millington