'Empathy is the most revolutionary emotion.'
- Gloria Steinem, in honor of her 81st birthday

Music

Miserere

Gregorio Allegri

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Mar 26, 2015
Category: Classical

WEEKEND CLASSIC: Spring = Easter. And Easter = this music. And this music = rapture.

Pope Francis is one surprise after another.

This one is about hearing confessionals at the Vatican, surely a thrill for the faithful who get him to forgive them their sins.

But instead of going directly to the booth last year, he walked over to another and made his confession.

The music that was playing as he confessed?

The Allegri Miserere. Easter music once exclusive to the pope, now available for all. The ideal metaphor for this Pope.

Do you know the story?

Rome. Easter Week, hundreds of years ago. The Matins service at the Vatican. 3 AM.

Twenty-seven candles are lit. One at a time, they’re extinguished. One candle left.

The Pope kneels before the altar and starts to pray.

Music begins.

And what music! The words are familiar: Psalm 51, David’s account of his affair with Bathsheba and his plea to God: “Wash away all my guilt; from my sin cleanse me.” It’s the choral work that stuns. Sweeping harmonies for the choir. A top C sung by a single castrato. And, connecting them, the simplest of chants.

This "Miserere" was the glory of Gregorio Allegri (1582 – 1652), known mostly as a singer in the Papal Chapel. For this one work, written in 1638, he joins the immortals — not only is it clearly an exquisite piece, but one of the 17th century Popes decided it should be played only on Wednesday and Good Friday of Holy Week, and only in the Sistine Chapel. No one dared to copy it — the penalty was excommunication. [To buy the CD of the "Miserere" from Amazon.com, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]

Thus begins the second remarkable story about Allegri’s "Miserere." In 1770, when he was just 12 years old, Mozart and his father came to Rome for Holy Week. St. Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel were obvious destinations; on Wednesday, Mozart heard the "Miserere." That night, from memory, he transcribed it. On Friday, he brought his copy — hidden in his hat —to the second performance of the piece. When he checked it for accuracy, he discovered he’d made just two mistakes. No copy of the Mozart transcription exists. It’s said he handed it off, whereupon it was copied again — and his version was then destroyed.

The truth of this story? Unknown. But only the music matters. I have heard it, on Good Friday, in a cathedral with wonderful acoustics, and it was ambrosia — music of such purity that, like David, I felt like a sinner before God. Add incense and priests and squint a little, and you’re in Rome, centuries ago. It’s wonderfully disorienting.

For my money, the Tallis Scholars are the greatest interpreters of any music that Peter Phillips, their founder, chooses to record. I play this CD every year at Easter. But its power and beauty are such that I don’t limit it to two days a year. When I’m famished for beauty, this music calls to me. It will call to you too.

Short takes

New goodies from Louise Fili: delicious Florence, yummy Tutti Friuti

You bought so many boxes of her Perfetto Pencils that Amazon was out of stock for weeks. You went on to binge on her “Quattro Parole Italiane” note cards and envelopes. Now the indefatigable Louise Fili is back with “Tutti Fruiti” — Perfetto pencils in 6 delicious colors. [To buy Tutti Fruiti pencils from Amazon, click here]. And she’s served up another idiosyncratic guidebook: “The Cognoscenti’s Guide to Florence: Shop and Eat like a Florentine.” [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Roger Sherman’s Kickstarter: His film about Israeli food isn’t about matzoh ball soup

Roger Sherman, a documentary filmmaker who’s won an Emmy and a Peabody and been twice nominated for an Academy Award, wanted to go to Paris. Instead, he found himself on a food tour of Israel. “I was knocked out by what I discovered: one of the most dynamic food scenes in the world,” he reports. Now it’s our turn to be knocked out: He’s making “The Search for Israeli Cuisine,” the first documentary portrait of the Israeli people told through food. Its destination: PBS. But first, a Kickstarter, ending on April 5, to get him into the editing room. I’ve known Roger for years; he makes important and entertaining films. My view: Supporting his Kickstarter is money well spent.