Of all the music The Tallis Scholars are asked to sing in concert, the pieces recorded here are the most in demand. The fame of Allegri's Miserere - which we have sung over 300 times in concerts throughout the world - is well established. The story behind this composition is a good one, but perhaps no better than the one behind the Mass which ‘saved church music' - Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli. However accurate these stories might be, both compositions were written to be performed in the Sistine Chapel where the musicians would have been surrounded by Michelangelo's newly painted frescoes. I sometimes stand on stages before a performance of the Allegri and invite the audience to imagine themselves in the Sistine Chapel, the famous choir gallery half-way up the right-hand wall, the soloists grouped there, the highest voice launching the top C into the vault. However dissimilar the actual performance venue, this image of heaven-on-earth always enhances the experience. Actually to perform in the Sistine Chapel, as we did in 1994, remains the most memorable thing we have ever done.
The Miserere story is straightforward enough. The music was written sometime before 1638; by the middle of the eighteenth century it had become so famous that the Papacy forbade anyone to sing it outside the Sistine Chapel, in order to enhance the reputation of the Papal choir. It is alleged that the music finally escaped when Mozart at the age of fourteen wrote it down from memory. That he did this is certain since, even though the actual copy he made does not survive, a letter from his father to his mother describing the incident does. In fact there were other copies of the Miserere outside the Vatican by then, though it was only about the time of Mozart's visit in 1770 that the music became widely available.
However, just as the Pope had feared, once the Miserere was heard outside the magical confines of the Sistine Chapel, the music was found to lose its power to astonish. The problem with any performance of it, then as now, is that what Gregorio Allegri himself composed is simple and plain. Everything depends on the embellishments which are added to Allegri's chords. There was a tradition of improvising amongst the Papal singers which no other group of singers could match, so in a way the fact that copies of the music escaped the confines of the Vatican didn't make much difference to the fame or development of the piece: one still had to go to the Sistine Chapel to hear it sung to its fullest potential. It seems likely that the embellishments got more and more effective as the decades passed until by the end of the nineteenth century the best of them had also been written down and become part of the composition. By then they included the high C which has so characterized the piece in recent times. For modern performers there remains the option of adding extra embellishments to the ‘established embellishments', which is what Deborah Roberts has done in the second version in this recording (track 9; track 1 presents the familiar version). They are published in the CD booklet as she sings them, the fruit of her experiments across most of the 300 performances that The Tallis Scholars have given. She and I acknowledge the irony of writing down these improvisations, but if making them available in print means that yet more dazzling roulades will be invented by subsequent performers then we are probably only doing what the Papal singers did when they listened to each other centuries ago.
In our landmark 1980 recording of the Miserere we followed standard practice by singing the chant verses to Tone 2. Eventually it was noticed that the higher of the two soprano parts in the five-voice choir parodies Tonus Peregrinus, the so-called ‘wandering tone'. It was the action of a moment for the cantor on this recording, Andrew Carwood, to restore the beautiful contours of Tonus Peregrinus to the nine chant verses, and so give the music a flow it has never fully had, at least in modern times.
The story of the Missa Papae Marcelli is more difficult to fix down in fact. The myth holds that the cardinals attending the Council of Trent were about to decide that singing polyphony in church services was unacceptable, for reasons ranging from the inaudibility of the texts to the complaint that polyphony was too sensuous and too intellectualized (quite a complaint!). There was a move to reinstate plainchant as the only permissible church music. One of the leading figures in the debate was the man who became Pope Marcellus II in 1555 and it is probable, given the title of the eventual composition, that Marcellus asked Palestrina to write a piece which would show the world that part-music could be both concise and musically valuable. Certainly in two of its movements - the Gloria and Credo - the Missa Papae Marcelli has a precision of word-setting which was innovative, though the other three movements are much more elaborate and the second Agnus Dei possibly the most mathematically complex movement Palestrina ever wrote. The evidence is rather confused, then, though it is surely significant that the syllabic style of the Gloria and Credo was recognized at the time as being novel: when the Mass came to be published in 1567 it was prefaced with the words ‘novo modorum genere' (broadly speaking ‘a new form of expression').
The syllabic style not only appealed to the reforming cardinals of the Council of Trent, however. The avant-garde composers of the later sixteenth century were moving fairly unanimously towards a harmonically based, word-orientated idiom in which the craze for madrigals played a central role, thus paving the way for the Baroque. The syllabic movements of the Missa Papae Marcelli were early in this change: later in his life Palestrina took up the method more consistently. His Stabat mater is the supreme example of this. Almost his last datable composition, it was written around 1589/90 in the antiphonal style between two separated choirs which is associated with Venetian music: perhaps Palestrina as an old man was keen to show that he was fully abreast of all the latest developments. Whether it was seen as being Venetian or not, when the Stabat mater was presented to the Papal choir it was instantly recognized as being a masterpiece and, like Allegri's Miserere, jealously guarded as an exclusive possession, to be performed uniquely by them every Palm Sunday.
Any Vatican composer setting a text about Saint Peter would have felt on his mettle, and nowhere does Palestrina make words shine more splendidly than in his six-voice Tu es Petrus. He must have identified with this text since he had already set it once before for seven voices, and soon would write one of his most elaborate parody Masses on this version. His sense of musical architecture is at its most compelling here as he builds up the massive pillars of sound which underlie the words ‘claves regni caelorum'. Joyful, positive in spirit, sonorous to the ear: Tu es Petrus sums up much of the mood of counter-Reformation Rome in general, and Palestrina's art in particular.
© 2007 Peter Phillips