Friday, March 25, 2016

Allegri's Miserere: Turning Up All Over

There is so much sublime music for Easter, I can barely talk about it. The Renaissance composers saved their most brilliant writing to word paint the holy mystery of the Triduum-—Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter.

One piece is famous beyond the small circle of church music: the Allegri Miserere. It’s a hauntingly beautiful piece that goes between the simple chant melody of Psalm 51 (50) and cascading quartets, with the soprano going up to a high C, one of the highest notes a human voice can produce.

Its popularity is augmented by its intriguing, something-out-of-Indiana Jones like history. It was written by the Sistine Chapel composer Allegri around 1630 for matins during Holy Week on Wednesday and Friday. On penalty of excommunication the score was never to be seen or shown outside of the Chapel choir. The ornamentation was never written down at all, but passed along from singer to singer.

Audiences were allowed to attend matins even back then, and it became known as a “must-hear” for the elite, particularly those on the original Grand Tour of the 18th century.

Enter the 14-year-old Mozart, in Rome in 1770, during Holy Week. When he hears the Miserere, he decides to write it down, note for note, from memory. He goes back on Good Friday to double-check his work. (It's comforting that even geniuses need to double-check things.)

He shortly after encounters Dr. Charles Burney, the British church musician and musicologist. Somehow the piece passes into his hands, and he publishes it in 1771 (it seems excommunication was now off the table). The piece that is performed today was permutated over the centuries—-sometimes by design, sometimes by out-and-out mistakes of transcription—-so it is not very close at all to what Mozart heard. But what Allegri’s Miserere has become is still an exceptional musical experience that captures the imagination of most who hear it.

In the Movies and Onstage
I have sung the alto part numerous times, so I am privileged to know it very well. I heard it recently in two very surprising places.

One was me finally watching the John Woo movie Face/Off, with John Travolta and Nicholas Cage. At the end, at the funeral for the director whom Travolta has killed, we see the funeral procession, and the music is the Miserere. (While it is so closely associated with Good Friday, Psalm 51 itself is used for Catholic burial.) Suprisingly, it is not listed in the Wikipedia write-up for the film, which does list other classical music that is used. How could they miss it?

The other instance was in the play The Seafarer, the Irish play by Conor McPherson (more about it here). The play is set on CHRISTMAS Eve. They turn the radio on at one point, and there we hear the Allegri Miserere. Very strange. With so much great Christmas music available, why would Conor (who is also the director) choose that? If anyone knows how to reach him, I would love to get an explanation for this.

Here is the performance by the exquisite English group The Sixteen, with the words below. (The high C comes around 1:45 minutes in and is repeated every other verse.)

Miserere Mei Deus
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.

2 Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

3 For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.

4 Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.

5 Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.

6 Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.

7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

8 Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.

9 Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.

11 Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.

12 Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.

13 Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.

14 Deliver me from blood guiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.

15 O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.

16 For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.

17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

18 Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.

19 Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.

(Reposted and updated from 2008.)

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Grand Marshalls of the St. Patrick's Day Parade In a Yeatsian Gyre: From Violence to Peace

W.B. Yeats had a complicated/poetic view of the forces of history. Forces being the important word.  Not surprising, since he was born in 1865 into the tail end of the Protestant Ascendancy, which began in the 17th century with "the political, economic and social domination of Ireland by a minority of landowners, Protestant clergy and  all members of the Established Church (the Church of Ireland and Church of England) wiki."

Yeats experienced the shift in the declining power of his Protestant heritage as Parnell and Home Rule grew stronger in 1880s, at the same time Yeats discovered and fell in love with Irish Fenian Mythology, going back to ancient, pre-Christian mystical Ireland. That love became the basis of his earliest poems in a career that evolved and matured brilliantly and gave us some of the most distinct, bracing, extraordinary English sentences of the 20th century, including

"Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer"

History goes in cycles for Yeats. And that popped into my head as I experienced a small piece of history come full circle surrounding the New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade.

I've been catching up with some of the details of the 255th edition of Parade. There will be less protesting, as our LGBT sisters and brothers are allowed in the line of march. Very Christian move, I say. And Pontifex just tweeted "No one can be excluded from the mercy of God. The Church is the house where everyone is welcomed and no one is rejected," so that clinches it.

And I learned that the Grand Marshall is Senator George Mitchell, one of the architects of what's known as the Good Friday Peace Agreement signed in 1998. (Like all things having to do with Irish/United Kingdom politics, it's complicated. You can read more about it on wiki.)  It hasn't been perfect, but it restored sanity to the cycle of violence that had overshadowed 20th century Irish lives for the decades known as The Troubles (in an even more active way than the centuries of British rule had done).

During this same time, it popped into my head to look back through the letters my Dad wrote to me when I was away at University in Southampton to see what he might have said about St. Patrick's Day 1983.

And lo and behold, he wrote all about the Grand Marshall that year.

From my Dad's letter to me dated March 19, 1983: 

"I was glad that you called St. Patrick's Day. We went to Mass but nothing else for festivities. We had a nice piece of corned beef and Grandma O' came down to join us. 

The Parade went well evidently, in spite of the controversy surrounding the Grand Marshall. I did not write about it because it bothered me, but a lot of dignitaries, organizations, and school bands boycotted the parade because the committee elected an IRA supporter as GM. 

His name is Michael Flannery--he is 81. He is the founder of the Noraid Society, which professes the help of families (widows, etc.) in Northern Ireland but which has been accused of supplying arms to the IRA. Flannery and several other Irish-Americans were acquitted last summer of such charges, brought by the US. Govt.

The worst part was Flannery made a comment to the effect that the Parade this year would show the Irish-American support for the IRA, which offended a lot of people, myself included.

I really feel if the Parade is going to be an expression or rallying point for political violence (last year Bobby Sands was the Honorary GM) then it should be done away with.

It is supposed to be, after all, an expression of love and honor for a man of peace--a Saint and a reflection of the Prince of Peace, Christ. 

Oh how we mortals can debase and denigrate the things that should be so dear to us."

I really never knew my father's political opinions. I had no idea he was so anti-IRA. He didn't share much when I was younger, and he died just when I was getting to be old enough to ask him about his views.

And by chance, I re-read his letter, after many years, on the year that someone he would have been proud of--a peace broker, a man who helped to heal all the destruction that the likes of Michael Flannery wrought in the name of loving Ireland--would be leading the line of march.  The gyre had turned far enough to spiral from violence, to peace.

What are the odds? Happy St. Patrick's Day to one and all (even the Irish curmudgeons who call it Amateur Irishman Day).

This video on YouTube is a real time capsule from 1983: a news report from some station, and then various functions during the week. 

Those who boycotted the parade in 1983 included Sen. Ted Kennedy, Former NY Governor Hugh Carey, Sen. Daniel Moynihan, and Congressman Tip O Neill, as well as John Cardinal O'Connor not reviewing the beginning of the parade, and various catholic school bands pulling out.